On this date, Charles Doolittle Walcott discovered interesting fossils while traveling alone along a horse trail near Burgess Pass in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Legend has it that his horse stopped in front of a rock which he then cracked open, discovering fossils. He returned the next day accompanied by his wife Helena and his son Stuart. Together they found several other remarkable fossils that Walcott immediately sketched in his field notebook. Obviously impressed by this discovery, Walcott’s entry for Aug. 31st – Sept 1st reads:
The fossils discovered by the Walcotts represented types of animals that had never been seen before.
Out with Helena, Stuart collecting fossils from the Stephen Formation. We found a remarkable group of Phyllopod crustaceans – Took a large number of fine specimens to camp. [The next day:] We continued collecting found a fine group of sponges on slope (in-situ) – Beautiful warm days
The Walcotts spent a total of five days that year collecting fossils in the area, mostly from loose slabs of rock found near the trail and on slopes.
Walcott quickly realized the importance of his finds. In a letter sent later that year to William Arthur Parks (his colleague and long-term correspondent at the University of Toronto) Walcott wrote: “…I had a few days collecting in the Stephen Formation [today’s Burgess Shale] in the vicinity of Field in September, and found some very interesting things.”
The following season, he located the source of the fossils higher up on Fossil Ridge, and began excavating.
The fossils, with their exquisite preservation, were unlike anything he had seen before. Walcott named the site the Burgess Shale, after nearby Mt. Burgess, but they received little attention until fifty years later. The Burgess Shale fossils, as they have come to be known, provide a glimpse of what life was like on Earth 505 million years ago. Over 60,000 unique fossils have been found, dominated by arthropods, although other fossils are found in great abundance, including worms, crinoids, sea cucumbers, chordates, and other organisms with no mineralized shell.