Tracking Creation in Glen Rose


A version of this story ran in the April 2012 issue.

In the beginning, God created dinosaurs and humans, and they walked together in Texas.

At least, according to many people in Glen Rose.

The small town about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth is home to some of the best-preserved dinosaur tracks in the world; it’s also a heavily Christian community where many locals interpret the book of Genesis literally.

Their belief is bolstered by a phenomenon in the riverbed. Alongside the dinosaur tracks are what resident R.C. McFall and others call “man tracks”—tangible proof of biblical creation accounts and a refutation of the theory of evolution.

McFall walks along the Paluxy River, careful not to place his cowboy boot in a dinosaur track. Muddy water fills the fossilized footprints embedded in this rocky ledge.

“There’s a track right there,” he says in a deep Texas drawl, pointing. “That hole is where my dad dug one out.”

If the river weren’t up, McFall explains, we’d see man tracks just a few feet away, in the same strata of rock as the dinosaur tracks.

The 113-million-year-old dinosaur tracks, first discovered in 1909, are an important part of Glen Rose’s livelihood, bringing thousands of visitors a year to attractions like Dinosaur Valley State Park and Dinosaur World. The town’s tourist industry, accounting for $23 million in annual revenue, was built largely on the jaw-dropping fact that fossils this old are still present today. Visitors can park their trailers at the Jurassic RV Park (the tracks actually date to the Cretaceous period) or stay at the Glen Rose Inn & Suites, where the sign features a cartoon dinosaur.

“The dinosaurs are what drive us,” says Billy Huckaby, executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Glen Rose. “You can’t develop a town of 2,000 into this kind of tourism revenue unless you’ve got something really special to promote.”

Tourist literature describes the tracks as millions of years old, but not everyone buys the science.

“I believe in the Bible,” McFall says. “I don’t believe the world’s over 6,000 or 7,000 years old. Course, everybody’s got their own interpretation.”

Beyond their appeal to tourists, the tracks have made Glen Rose a destination for scientists and religious pilgrims. In the ’30s and ’40s, paleontologists came to study the well-preserved dinosaur footprints, removing sections for display at museums in Austin and New York. Creationists, too, have come to Glen Rose, hoping the man tracks can prove their hypothesis of a young Earth. The town has even produced its share of fake tracks—both dinosaur and human—which further confuse the issue.

But if there’s controversy among residents of Glen Rose between science and religion, it’s below the surface.

“Most everyone in
Glen Rose that I know believes man and dinosaurs coexisted,” Alice Lance tells me at the annual tractor pull. “The only conflict we have is when people move from metropolitan areas and have different value systems. I think some don’t have a strong [religious] belief system, and they’re more likely to go with science than faith.”

Biology teacher Wendy Thompson says that students sometimes ask about the exhibits, including “evidence” of human footprints alongside those of dinosaurs they’ve seen at the local Creation Evidence Museum, or ask questions informed by their religious views. One student recently told Thompson how she and her father reconciled evolution with the Genesis account. God created the sun and moon on the fourth day; before that, a “day,” the student reasoned, could have been millions of years long.

“I just listened to her,” Thompson says. “It’s kind of a touchy thing.”

Mary Adams, the niece of George Adams, who found the dinosaur tracks more than a century ago, recently delivered a presentation to youth at the First Baptist Church warning them against belief in evolution.

“If we were not created by God,” the 87-year-old Adams tells me, “there’s no one to whom we are accountable. We can live exactly as we please.”

Adams’ presentation described how she was raised in a church-going home and believed a literal interpretation of Genesis until college, when she accepted evolution instead. She left the church and was married, not entirely happily, to an atheist for 29 years. After their divorce she returned to Glen Rose and to the Lord.

She calls the theory of evolution “the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

For Adams, the idea that God may have worked the miracle of life through the mechanism of evolution, or that science explains “how” and religion explains “why,” doesn’t hold water. It’s “too much of a mixture,” she says.

“Mixing,” though, is how residents like Alice Lance reconcile science and religion.

“How long was that week [described in Genesis]?” Lance wonders. “Until the seasons were established, we don’t know how time would have operated. If you believe in a superior being, he could manipulate time.”

According to geologists
, the rock layer near Glen Rose containing fossilized dinosaur footprints is 113 million years old. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, about 60 million years before the earliest humans appeared. So what are the riverbed man tracks?

The answer comes from amateur paleontologist Glen Kuban, who’s studied those tracks since the ’80s. They’re actually more dinosaur tracks, Kuban says.

Fossilized tracks were formed when dinosaurs—in this case the herbivore Paluxysaurus (similar to the Brontosaurus you learned about in grade school) and carnivore Acroca­nthosaurus (a smaller cousin of Tyra­nn­­osaurus rex)—left footprints in mud that dried and hardened. Later, a different type of sediment washed into the tracks and, over millions of years, turned to stone. Eventually rivers carved through the area and eroded the softer, later sediment, exposing the tracks.

Kuban, later joined by other paleontologists, determined that the “man” tracks are metatarsal prints made by dinosaurs that, instead of walking only on their toes, let their heels drop into the mud. The resulting elongated tracks appeared human-like, and the effect was compounded when mud collapsed over the toe impressions or sediment filled them in. Kuban has presented his work at conferences and published in scientific journals. Among paleontologists, the issue is settled: There are no man tracks.

Glen Rose residents are less sure.

“I’ll be honest,” Sue Bussey says. “Some of the tracks positively look like man tracks. But Dr. Baugh took us to see the McFall tracks, and they don’t look like a man’s track. There’s no definite toes. There’s a heel and an arch, but it’s very vague.”

Sue and her husband, Morris Bussey, run Bussey’s Something Special, a bed and breakfast inn just off the town square. A western-themed bedroom sports a list of “The Cowboy Ten Commandments.” (No. 10: “Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.”)

Sue’s referring to Carl Baugh, a Baptist minister who moved to Glen Rose in the early ’80s to research the man tracks. Convinced of their authenticity, he founded the Creation Evidence Museum to promote the idea that the Earth is only a few thousand years old, consistent with biblical timelines. The museum tends to attract more tourists and creationist pilgrims than locals.

“I’m religious,” Sue Bussey says, “and I know God made it all, but I don’t know or care if he made it in billions of years, or if he put time zones in there to make it look like billions of years.”

Morris Bussey runs the Stone Hut fossil shop in an old whiskey cabin close to the state park and the Creation Evidence Museum. Though his formal education stopped at sixth grade, Bussey knows a lot about fossils.

Unlike his wife, he’s not religious. “You ask me what I believe in, it’s the almighty dollar,” he says, pointing upward.

Over the years, the Busseys have learned from professional geologists and paleontologists. “One thing they taught us was about pseudofossils,” Sue says. “That’s a wannabe fossil. Either someone’s made it, which happens around here, or more likely it’s just a rock that looks like a fossil.”

Most locals know
that fake fossils have been in Glen Rose since the ’30s. The first fossil carvers had economic motives, not religious ones.

Until the ’70s, Somervell County, where Glen Rose is located, was one of the poorest counties in Texas, several locals tell me. Chopping cedar posts and making moonshine were important sources of income. During Prohibition, Glen Rose was known as the moonshine capital of Texas.

It’s easy to understand why, during the Depression, residents would be tempted to dig dinosaur tracks out of the riverbed and sell them. Or even carve pseudofossils by hand. Ironically, fake tracks ultimately brought lasting attention to the town’s real tracks. In 1938, American Museum of Natural History field researcher Roland T. Bird was on his way back to New York from an expedition to New Mexico when he stopped at a trading post and found freestanding sets of both human and dinosaur tracks from Glen Rose. While he immediately recognized the human tracks as carved, he decided to detour through Texas to investigate. Bird excavated a dinosaur trackway (a set of impressions) from the Paluxy River and took it to New York, where it’s displayed in the museum.

Though Bird never supported the idea of man tracks, his mention in a 1939 article of a human foot-like print in the Paluxy made Glen Rose a destination for creationists who sought dinosaur-era human tracks as evidence for their young Earth theory. From the 1950s into the ’70s, creationist publications and a film publicized the claim, even as several groups of hopeful creationists concluded that the tracks were not in fact human. Kuban first came to Glen Rose hoping the tracks would provide evidence that the Earth was just a few thousand years old. His conclusion to the contrary contributed to his growing skepticism of that perspective.

Still, the faithful continue to visit the area today. Betty Gosdin of the Somervell County Heritage Center showed me the card that visitors from Restoring Genesis Ministries in Kansas had left with her a week before my visit. Their mission: “Sharing the truth of creation and restoring a biblical foundation.”

The Creation Evidence Museum
sits back from a dramatic curve in the road to Dinosaur Valley State Park.

Inside, the building’s open floor plan is reminiscent of a church, with a central gathering space and a balcony running along the perimeter. A T. rex head that appears to be bursting through the back wall overlooks a smatter of glass cases holding artifacts.

Baugh, the museum’s founder and curator, shows me the highlights: loose blocks of rock with human footprints he describes as evidence of a young Earth. Some show what Baugh says are overlapping human and dinosaur tracks. It’s easy to see distinct heels and toes on these prints, unlike the metatarsal prints Kuban has documented in the riverbed, and not hard to imagine them being what Sue Bussey would call pseudofossils.

Baugh estimates that his museum hosted 15,000 visitors annually until the recent recession cut those numbers in half.

Baugh speaks in the gentle, measured tones of a practiced orator. At 75, he recently retired from an 11-year stint as host of a creationist TV show. He says he accepted evolution as truth until the Paluxy tracks changed his mind. Now, “it requires more faith to believe [evolution] than it does to accept one single postulate,” he says. “That postulate is that there is a creator capable of creating life of his choosing.”

After our interview, I wander past the partial replica of Noah’s Ark and the gift shop. A plaque in a corner reads, “The creator has endowed mankind with a prolific creative ability.” Upstairs an exhibit called “Creativity of Man” highlights humans’ unique capacity to create—which creationists say God gave to humans alone when he made them. It’s an unusual collection: arrowheads and tomahawks, an antique one-cylinder Oldsmobile and a larger-than-life-size sculpture of Tom Landry.

“Creation science” allows believers to embrace a form of scientific inquiry without discarding a literal reading of the Bible. But there are better advocates than Baugh’s museum, says Andrew Snelling of Answers in Genesis (AIG), a leading creation science organization based near Cincinnati. Snelling holds a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Sydney in Australia and is AIG’s director of research. He hasn’t visited the Creation Evidence Museum, but he cautions against learning about creation science there.

“What Baugh presents there is sometimes speculative—provocative, for want of a better term,” Snelling says. “That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have those things, but people should realize it’s not the mainstream of the creation movement.” He adds that AIG and Baugh agree about the “big picture,” which is that the Bible gives an accurate account of the Earth’s history.

Baugh’s academic credentials, including the “Dr.” in his title, are dubious. The title comes from a theology degree he earned from Louisiana Baptist University, an unaccredited school that operates mostly by extension. And there were no records of a Utah college from which he says he received a biblical archaeology degree. He’s claimed a lot more degrees over the years.

Baugh says he’s motivated by the search for truth. “I don’t mind being controversial, because the truth has always been controversial,” he says. “Controversy was introduced in the Garden of Eden, and it has followed until this very moment. It will follow me after I’m gone.”

After years of poverty, Glen Rose’s fortunes reversed when construction began on the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in 1974. Suddenly the community was awash in tax revenue, which it invested in tourism infrastructure: two golf courses, an expo center, a hillside amphitheatre. The power plant keeps taxes low and schools well funded. Such amenities attracted urban refugees to the picturesque small town, and the population began to grow.

The Texas Amphitheatre has hosted The Promise, a musical about the life of Christ, since 1989. Billboards and print ads proclaim, “I saw Jesus in Glen Rose!” a sighting shared by as many as 28,000 visitors per year.

If a musical about Jesus plays so well, why not a musical about dinosaurs? Two summers ago the amphitheatre presented Land of the Dinosaurs, billed as “the world’s best live-action dinosaur musical.” The show was a family-oriented drama starring humans and animatronic dinosaurs. Only the humans sang.

I learned this from Mike Dooley, one of the show’s investors, who manages the expo center and amphitheatre. Dooley is a businessman who moved to Glen Rose for the schools, hospital and golf courses. He doesn’t have much time for the idea of man tracks.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much impossible.” He shrugs. “But I know that a lot of people are very serious about it.” In fact, he said, one person suggested changing some of the lyrics in Land of the Dinosaurs to accommodate the young-Earth crowd—perhaps, the man said, it shouldn’t be mentioned that T. rex was 240 million years old. Dooley left the script alone.

Dinosaurs are good for business. They creep into events at the expo center, such as the annual “Jurassic Classic” barrel races. An Acrocanthosaurus track displayed in front of the expo center was excavated when the second nuclear reactor was being built. “That’s an interesting juxtaposition,” Dooley notes. “Dinosaurs, nuclear power. But that’s kind of what this community is.”

The state park is among Glen Rose’s main attractions. Visitors are greeted by two giant fiberglass dinosaurs—not Acrocanthosaurus and Paluxysaurus, but their more famous cousins T. rex and Brontosaurus, the latter name having since been abandoned for scientific use. The models were part of an exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair funded by Sinclair Oil—fake dinosaurs underwritten by dead dinosaurs. Park patrons can see and touch dinosaur tracks in the riverbed when the water is low, but on the day of my visit the tracks were underwater.

People occasionally want to argue with park staff about the age of the Earth, or about the park having hidden human tracks, but they generally aren’t locals, park operations trainee Robyn Dabney says. They’re creationists from as far away as Europe.

It can be difficult for someone who believes in a 6,000-year-old Earth to hear a park interpreter describe 113-million-year-old tracks.

“The part that’s hard for people is not that dinosaurs were here,” Dabney says, “but the time period, and how it can’t possibly match the time period that they believe in.”

Just upriver from the state park, on R.C. McFall’s place, the stillness of evening is broken by the sporadic rumble of distant thunder. We retrace our steps along the stone ledge above the river.

McFall recounts how tourists paid his father for a look at the tracks when he was a boy. I ask whether he thinks humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.

“Yeah, I don’t believe in the Darwin deal,” he says. “The Bible says God created everything, you know.”

We pause by a smooth brown stone the size of a kiddie pool that McFall says is a coprolite, or fossilized dinosaur dung. I ask him what he thinks of Glen Kuban’s conclusion that the Paluxy’s man prints were made by dinosaurs walking with their heels down. He listens, then shakes his head.

“When I was a kid, before the water eroded them, there were tracks that had five toes and an arch of a foot and a heel, just like a human being.”

The evidence is gone, but the conviction remains. For many in Glen Rose, science is a helpful means of understanding the world, but an incomplete one. Regardless of what paleontologists say about the man tracks, the faithful in Glen Rose have seen what God made in the Paluxy River valley.

And indeed, it was very good.

Freelance writer Robyn Ross lives in Austin.