Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Riker Hill Park

Riker Hill is a 204.68-acre complex off Beaufort Avenue located in the western section of Essex County in Roseland and is composed of three parts: 1) The Riker Hill Art Park, a 42-acre former US Nike missile tracking base, acquired in 1977. Its former army barracks are now occupied by artists, sculptors and craftsmen; 2) Dinosaur Park, a fossil site of 16 acres (6.5 ha) at the border between Roseland and Livingston. It is one of the major sites in United States where a large number of dinosaur tracks are preserved. It was acquired in 1970 and 3) Becker Park, a 147-acre tract of undeveloped parkland that was purchased in 1969 in part through the Green Acres Program.

Riker Hill Art Park was a United States Army Nike Missile Base in the 1950's. The tract was purchased from the federal government for one [$1.00] dollar, in 1974. The buildings that once housed army facilities have been converted to art studios where sculpture, painting, photography, and various crafts now flourish.

Not only does Riker Hill Art Park provide a unique opportunity for local artists to work together in a communal setting, but it is the only self-supporting park in the park system. The art studios rented to the artists, along with art instruction, the gallery, and concerts held there, produce revenues for the County that help support the cost of the park's operation.

Originally, the site was part of a 55 acre Roseland Quarry owned by the Kidde Company. (There is still quarrying nearby.) In 1968, dinosaur tracks were discovered at the quarry. A 14-year-old named Paul E. Olsen who lived in Livingston started visiting the site with his friend Tony Lessa. They eventually uncovered more than one thousand dinosaur, animal and insect tracks from the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic period over the course of several years.

Paul and Tony helped get the Riker Hill Fossil Site named a National Natural Landmark. The two teens thought that one way to prevent the site from being developed was to send a cast from a footprint of Eubrontes Giganteus to President Richard Nixon to get his support.

Cast of Eubrontes giganteus track by Paul Olsen (1970)
Photo taken at National Archives, Washington, D.C.(2009) via

Two happy endings to the story. First, the quarry was divided and the most productive portion was preserved and donated to Essex County Park Commission and named after Walter Kidde. It was declared a National Natural Landmark in June 1971. The rest of the quarry was later developed into the Nob Hill apartment complex.

The second happy ending is that young Paul Olsen grew up to become an actual paleontologist.

He studied and wrote about where he grew up too. The Newark Group, also known as the Newark Supergroup, is the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic sedimentary rocks which outcrop intermittently from Nova Scotia to North Carolina that is named for the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The red rock beds that he explored feature ripple marks, mud cracks, and even rain drop prints. Dinosaur footprints are common, though actual body fossils are very rare. The beds dip to the east, while the faults dip westward.

These beds of sedimentary rock are intruded by numerous dikes and sills made from igneous activity like lava and magma flows. The New Jersey Palisades sill is a huge example of that.

The Passaic Formation was previously known as the Brunswick Formation since it was first described in the vicinity of New Brunswick, New Jersey. It is now named for the city of Passaic, New Jersey, which is near where its type section was described by paleontologist and Professor Paul Olsen.

I took my son's Scout troop to Riker Hill more than a decade ago and explained that we were basically standing at the edge of glacial Lake Passaic where lava from deep within the Earth once flowed and where dinosaurs may have once stood to drink from the lake.

Following these USGS Directions, from Interstate 280 westbound, take Exit 4A and turn south on Eisenhower Parkway. Drive 1.1 miles and turn left onto Beaufort Avenue. After another 0.4 mile turn left onto the entrance road to Riker Hill Park. Drive up hill and park at the Geology Museum. Follow the trail from the museum parking past the ruins of a Nike missile platform, and down hill through the woods about .25 miles to an abandoned stone quarry.

You will see fresh exposures of sedimentary red beds of the Early Jurassic Towaco Formation. They consist of layered shale and intervening sandstone that preserves a variety of sedimentary structures like ripple marks, mud cracks and even trace fossils (rare dinosaur tracks which are very tiny).

It is illegal to remove anything, especially fossils, from the area.

About 200 feet further, there is a high wall of basalt, which is an igneous rock intrusion feature. Though the red rocks you see there are sedimentary rocks, this igneous rock was formed through the cooling and solidification of magma or lava.

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