National Register of Historic Places


Fossil Cabin

Near Medicine Bow

Date Added to Register

Friday, April 11, 2008

Smithsonian Number

48CR8263

Read all about it

The Fossil Cabin is an exceptional example of a roadside attraction associated with transcontinental travel along the old Lincoln Highway and U. S. Route 30; approximately five miles east of the nearest town, Medicine Bow, Wyoming. The cabin, constructed in 1932, was meant to lure travelers off the busy highway to buy gas at the nearby pumps. The one-story, rectangular-shaped building measures twenty-eight feet, four inches by eighteen feet, four inches and faces southwest. The walls are constructed primarily of dinosaur bones mined from nearby Como Bluff, one of the richest dinosaur fossil beds in the world. The dinosaur bones are laid in random courses with wide mortar joints. A University of Wyoming dinosaur specialist concluded that the bones were from a variety of species but that bone collection did not include a complete specimen. The building purportedly weighs 102,166 pounds and used a total of 5,796 dinosaur bones in its construction. The exterior walls do contain a very small amount of rock.

The bones to construct the cabin were gathered over a period of seventeen years from nearby Como Bluff. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, Como Bluff is part of the Morrison Formation, which is hundreds of feet deep and contains millions of years of deposition. The Morrison Formation occurs in twelve states and the first major vertebrate paleontological sites were discovered within the formation in 1877 in Wyoming and Colorado. Important fossil discoveries in the Morrison Formation led to the study of vertebrate paleontology worldwide by the end of the nineteenth century.

Two employees of the Union Pacific Railroad are credited with the first significant discovery of dinosaur remains at the bluff in 1877. As news of the find spread, prominent scientists and their crews traveled to the bluff where they unearthed a number of whole dinosaurs that were sent to such museums as the Peabody in Boston and the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh. Fierce rivalries, known as “the bone wars,” developed among various scientists working at the bluff as each attempted to become the first to discover a large or new specimen that could be sold for high dollar or displayed at the colleges with which they were affiliated.

Thomas Boylan, builder of the Fossil Cabin, was born in California in 1863 and came to Wyoming in 1892. He worked for various sheep and cattle companies near Lander, Medicine Bow and Rock River. Boylan filed on a homestead in 1908 located near Como Bluff. He collected dinosaur bones over a period of years with the intention of erecting dinosaur sculptures near the gas pumps located in front of his house along the Lincoln Highway. Boylan instead built the Fossil Cabin with 5,796 fossilized dinosaur bones and a small amount of rock.

The Fossil Cabin is a relic of a bygone era of motorized travel when petting zoos and buildings made of dinosaur bones could entice a driver to stop and gas up. It is a unique building, perhaps the only structure in the entire country made of dinosaur bones. Within the past several years, a man from North Carolina offered to buy the building with the purpose of moving it to that state to be used as a tourist attraction. The idea that the Fossil Cabin could be moved to North Carolina, so out of context, is amusing but also indicative of just how underappreciated it is on its home turf. It would be unfortunate if Wyoming loses its most significant piece of roadside architecture, one so evocative of an earlier time and directly related to the first transcontinental highway.

Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources