Fossils & Minerals:  Dinosaurs & Birds:  SUE T. rex Story - Part 2
The Story of a Dinosaur Named SUE (cont.)

Part 2 - Discovery & Excavation

On August 12, 1990, Sue Hendrickson took Maurice up on his offer. Activity at the Ruth Mason quarry was winding down, and we were all anxious to go home after a long field season of digging. As a matter of fact, I had already gone home, with no intentions of returning that year.

On August 12, 1990, while Pete, his son Matt, my son Jason, and Terry Wentz went into the town of Faith, South Dakota, to get a couple of tires repaired on our Suburban, Susan decided to take advantage of a cool, foggy morning and hike over to check out an exposure on Maurice Williams' land.

Susan hiked for several miles before she came to one of the few badlands outcrops we had not yet investigated. Although we had checked out other exposures a few hundred yards away, this exposure had escaped our scrutiny. After walking along the bank a few hundred feet, Sue was surprised to see a couple of articulated vertebrae, some ribs, and a large bone weathering out of a cliff face. Although we had been looking and collecting in the Hell Creek formation for more than a dozen years, we had never found more than just a few bones together at a time, let alone articulated bones! What we generally found, as in our Edmontosaurus bone bed, were the disarticulated (no longer together) partial remains of dinosaurs.

Because of the size of the bones, their unusual appearance, and the nature of the articulation, Susan was quite excited about the find. She was almost certain that the bones were T. rex and was hopeful Peter would confirm her suspicions. She immediately took a few fragments to Pete, the resident expert in fossil identification. When Pete saw the bones, even though he had never seen the inside of a T. rex bone before, he knew immediately it was a Tyrannosaurus.

On the eve of August 12, Pete called me at home. Without excitement, he told me they had been working on a Triceratops, and I would have to return to the quarry to help them finish getting the bones out. He also said to bring the rest of the plaster (700 pounds!), a large assortment of lumber, and many more tools. I asked him what I would need all that for. He told me they had found something else, but he wouldn't tell me what it was.

Pete contacted Maurice to tell him they had found something and that he wanted to be able to collect it. Pete described the location to him and Maurice gave us permission to dig. However, because it had been dry and hot that summer, he told Pete he did not want us to drive on his property.

On August 13, while I was getting materials ready to take to the site, Pete called Marion, our executive secretary, to have her check on the status of the land where this new find was located. After checking with the register of deeds for Ziebach County, Marion was assured that the land did, indeed belong to Maurice and Darlene Williams.

On the morning of August 14, I arrived back at Faith for what I believed would be just a couple more easy days of collecting and then home. At an outcrop near the new site, I met Jason, Pete, Matthew, Terry, and Susan. They took me on from there to show me their new discovery. What I saw was a cliff, a very tall cliff, with some very, very interesting bones weathering out.

When I finally realized what these bones were and that they could be from a complete specimen, my initial excitement gave way to a feeling of desperation. My back was already sore from several months of collecting. We had an exhibition the beginning of September in Denver, and there was a LOT of overburden above the bones, 29 feet to be exact!

During Pete's conversation with Maurice about the find, Maurice gave Pete permission to remove the hill to get to the find, but the task looked almost insurmountable to me.

I tried to convince Pete; first that we should wait until next season, next that we should hire someone to remove the overburden, and finally, that maybe if we watched long enough we could mentally remove the overburden without having to wield the pick and shovel!

Pete was unmoved, and his final decision was not sympathetic to my aching back: "Neal, you and I will take the hill down. Terry wants some time off, and he can take our boys home with him." Jason had to get back to attend football practice for his Junior year in high school, and Matthew needed to prepare for the soon-to-begin school year, as well.

Pete gave the name "SUE" to the T. rex in honor of Susan Hendrickson, the discoverer. I also thought it was perfect to name it after Susan, and also because ironically, Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue", was playing on the radio as I met the crew that morning.

Peter knew the importance of this find. He and Susan began recording, by means of photographs and video, the entire process of the dig, including a reenactment of the discovery of the dinosaur.

We carefully mapped, collected, and labeled the weathered out, fragmented bones that had washed down the hill. We applied a generous plaster cap to the exposed bones still in the hill and covered them with a secured tarp to protect them from damage from falling material as we removed the overburden.

SUE HillOn August 15, precisely at 11:00 a.m., we began our assault on what we called "Tyrable Mountain." August 15, 16, 17, and 18, Pete, Susan, and I relentlessly fought and wrestled the hill, attempting to cut it down to size. This was the hardest digging I have ever done in my life. It was difficult to get the picks to penetrate the hard silt stone. We had to look for cracks to get them into and put all our weight into the task, to try to get the rock to break up. Some of the rocks we rolled down the hill were several hundred pounds! There was a reason the hill was there and why SUE was still in it. The sediments were VERY hard and did not erode away very rapidly.

We stayed at our campsite at the Ruth Mason Quarry where, over the years, we had established facilities like running water, an outhouse, shower house and a shelter for cooking and socializing. The camp was less than three miles away as the crow flies, but it was more than a nine mile drive (over rough terrain) that took nearly forty-five minutes each way. Once we reached Maurice's property line, at his request, we parked our vehicle and had to hike in more than half a mile, with our food, water, and other supplies. As it became dark each day, we covered the dig for the night, gathered up our empty water jugs, and the fossil packages we had removed that day, hiked back to the vehicle, drove "home", cleaned up, and prepared supper by lantern light.

By August 18, I was beat. My body hurt everywhere. It had been hot... VERY HOT, nearly every day. The temperature was continuously between 110 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit! We had been digging on the hill for more than twelve hours a day, every day, almost nonstop. Most of the hill had been removed and we were very near the bone layer, but my arms and hands were numb, as a result of a pinched nerve in my back. I could no longer feel the pick in my hands!

SUE T. rex Story

 1) Beginning
 2) Discovery / Excavation
 3) Initial Preparation
 4) Raid and seizure
 5) Free SUE / Court case
 6) Final Chapter

 

Dinosaurs
 - STAN the T. rex
 - SUE the T. rex
 - T. rex specimen chart
 - Acrocanthosaurus
 - CLAWS Struthiomimus
 - Horned Dinosaurs
 - KELSEY Triceratops
 - Edmontosaurus

Birds
 - Fossil Birds

 

Vertebrates
 - Mammals
 - Dinosaurs & Birds
 - Reptiles & Amphibians
 - Fishes

Invertebrates
 - Mollusks
 - Echinoderms
 - Arthropods

 - Plants & Amber

 - Minerals
 - Meteorites
 - Geology

Terry was due back the next day, so I left for a much-needed deep muscle massage, and a few relaxing days in Hill City. Pete said he would call me when he found the skull. Then I was to organize the rest of the needed collecting equipment and deliver it to the site.

It was August 22 at 8:30 p.m. when Pete called me about the skull. I hadn't told anyone except my wife of the T. rex until this point. Now, more than a week later, I told our partner, Bob Farrar. The only other person who had been notified was Dr. Don Wolberg from the New Mexico Bureau of Mines.

By this time, I was excited! I wanted to get back, get it out, and tell the world. I called my brother John, who is a rancher near Mission, South Dakota, and arranged for him to bring his big trailer to the site and to help us get the T. rex out of the ground. Although I wouldn't tell him what we had found, he had his suspicions. I returned to the site on August 24, ready and anxious to get the beast out of the ground.

What I saw when I returned, was unbelievable. The back of the Tyrannosaurus' skull was huge and was lying uncrushed, inches below where I had quit digging six days before!

Maurice was excited also. He began visiting the site nearly every day,and brought his family to witness the progress.

I commented to Pete during the excavation, that I thought the name SUE was a rather clever one because, being a rather large male, the Tyrannosaur fit well with the song "A Boy Named Sue". Pete, at this point informed me that he thought SUE was a large female, and we argued the point. Pete said, "I'll prove it to you!".

He spent the next several years finding evidence that proved that claim.

Within a couple days, we had uncovered the Tyrannosaurus' tail, her right and left legs, nearly all her ribs, her dorsal vertebrae, and one arm. Out of nine total specimens, this was only the second T. rex found with a forelimb preserved. The other one was collected earlier that year by a crew from the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, led by Jack Horner. We also discovered the remains of several other animals, (including a beautiful turtle skull) and a number of plant and invertebrate specimens.

We mapped the entire dinosaur and all associated bones as we dug. Pete remembered that Dr. Robert Bakker, (famed dinosaur expert and author of "The Dinosaur Heresies", and "Raptor Red") had told him of a method of mapping fossils quickly by using butcher paper on which to trace the bones full scale. This technique proved quite remarkable in giving us a map that showed how each bone was found and where it laid in relation to the rest of the animal.

We gave Maurice Williams a check for $5,000. In the memo was written, "Theropod 8-14-90 Sue".

While many people now believe that $5000 was a small amount to pay for the world's greatest dinosaur, at that time, it was the most anyone had ever paid for a "dinosaur in the ground". It was also, all the money we had and could borrow from the bank.

Operating the Ruth Mason Dinosaur Quarry took nearly thirty thousand dollars that season, and while we were in the field, we had no production or sales taking place back home. Also, we had just constructed a new pole building behind our main building. These expenses had forced us to establish a $50,000 line of credit with the bank and we had used $45,000 of it for the new structure and for operating capital. We gave Maurice every dollar we could come up with at the time.

When the digging got tough, we only had to look at that skull for the strength and determination to go on. We called my brother John, and on August 29, he and a good friend, Robert Tate, arrived at the site to help us get the rest of SUE out of the ground. Maurice, at this time, allowed us to drive in "one time" with our vehicles to load up the remainder of the dinosaur. On August 30, we had a crew of six diggers working to extract the dinosaur from the jaws of the hill.

On August 30, Terry and Pete began working at removing the dorsal (body) vertebrae that were hiding the skull. Then they cleaned the right side of the skull, and SUE's impressive teeth came into view. John, Robert, Susan and I began removing many of the other large casts and individual bones and loading them onto the trucks and trailers.

One thing was certain. SUE's life had been no bowl of sequoia cones. Her left fibula had been broken and an excessive bony outgrowth, called an exostosis, had grown over nearly the entire shaft. Several of the tail vertebrae were fused, and again, an exostosis had grown around them. The skull had been damaged, possibly in a fight, and also showed signs of excessive bone regrowth.

Sue had grown to a large size, even for a Tyrannosaurus. Her femur length of 54 inches surpassed, by more than 6 percent, the previously known largest T. rex, newly excavated and at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana. Six percent may not seem like much, but that is enough to make SUE more than one foot higher at the hips than the Bozeman specimen, and more than five feet longer than the T. rex at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

As we collected SUE, Pete told me that this was the specimen that could make the museum that we had always dreamed of. Even when we were children, we filled an old shack on our father's land with fossils, minerals, and rocks and called it a museum. From then on, we saved the best of everything we found for our future museum. When I told Pete we couldn't sell SUE, he said, "of course not. People will help us build a museum to hold her."

He spoke of touring her and showing her to the world to help raise money to build a museum to house her, along with all of our other great finds.

By August 31, we had removed all the bones except for the largest block. This block contained the skull, pelvis, sacrum, several dorsal vertebrae, numerous ribs, the right leg, some foot bones, and hopefully, her left forelimb. In the morning, Terry and I left the site to help Maurice and his son Brady, dehorn and brand calves. We didn't get back until after lunch. While we were gone, Sue, Pete, John, and Robert worked on getting the big block ready to remove. Terry and I assisted with this when we returned. With continuous undercutting and plastering, we had the big block ready to load by 5 p.m. on September first.

Because a large rainstorm was headed our way, we decided, the only way we were going to get SUE safely out of the ground was to do it right away. If a substantial rainfall had occurred with the block still in the field, we might have been delayed several days, or even weeks, before the soil would have been dry enough to remove it. Leaving the large block in the field to be rained on might have ruined the fresh plaster jacket and caused damage to the bones inside.

Because the big block probably weighed more than 10,000 pounds, the job of moving the mass from the cliff to the back of the trailer was not easy. Fortunately, we had a five-ton come-along and six imaginative people. In three hours, we had the huge plastered block on John's trailer and on its way to its permanent home in Hill City, South Dakota. Just as we left the dirt trail and reached the gravel road, it started to rain, and continued raining for almost our entire trip home.

Robert headed for home. Pete, Terry, and Sue remained behind to close the camp and get a good geologic measurement from the area to determine its relationship to the underlying Fox Hills Formation, and its position within the Hell Creek Formation. This would help tell SUE's age.

John and I arrived in Hill City, at about two in the morning. The next day, we had to come up with a way to unload the massive casts from our trailer. We contacted the local lumberyard and they put us in touch with someone who had a forklift powerful enough to lift the largest SUE block. Fortunately, we had put up a pole building on property behind the Institute earlier that summer and by the end of August, it was all finished. This building which would soon be called "Rex Hall", would be SUE's home for nearly the next two years. SUE's remains were so extensive, she would take up the whole rear third of the building on both floors.

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