By Douglas J. Preston
From his Dinosaurs in the Attic: an Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History, Ballantine Books, 1986, New York. Excerpt courtesy of the Hayden Planetarium.
[N]othing can quite compare with the amusing and outrageous story of the Museum's Willamette meteorite, the largest ever found in the United States. The Willamette (pronounced Wil-LAM-ette) is certainly the oddest looking meteorite in [New York's American] Museum [of Natural History] or perhaps anywhere. Most meteorites are shapeless lumps, but this sixteen-ton chunk of nickel iron is pitted with huge cavities; a famous photograph taken in 1911 shows two children sitting inside the meteorite. Contrary to popular belief, the pits were not caused by its fiery descent through the atmosphere, but by centuries of rusting away in a damp Oregonian forest.1
In the fall of 1902, a Welsh immigrant named Ellis Hughes discovered an odd, partly buried rock about three-quarters of a mile from his property in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The next day, Hughes confided his discovery to a neighbor, William Dale, and showed him the rock. By chance, Dale struck it with a stone, and it gave off to their astonishment, a ringing sound. Since both men were miners, they immediately recognized it for what it was-- an iron meteorite. They hid it under a pile of fir boughs and started discussing how they could secure the meteorite for themselves. The problem was that the land it lay on was owned (ironically) by the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. They decided to keep the discovery secret and buy the land on which it lay. Dale went off to eastern Oregon to sell some property to raise the necessary capital.
For some reason, Dale never returned, After many months, Hughes' wife began nagging him about the meteorite, telling him to do something before someone else found it. Without the necessary money, Hughes' only other option quickly became obvious: he had to steal the meteorite.
Purloining a 32,000-pound chunk of iron is not an easy task. In August 1903, Hughes began excavating the huge meteorite. Working in great secrecy with the crudest of tools, he was assisted only by his teenage son and an old horse. After digging around the sixteen-ton mass, they jacked and levered it out of the hole onto a primitive flatbed cart they had built entirely of logs, using tree trunk sections for wheels. The resourceful Welshman then rigged up a capstan device for hauling the cart. The capstan consisted of a post sunken into the ground, attached to a steel cable. Hughes harnessed his horse to the capstan so that the horse, by walking around in endless circles, caused the cable to wind up around the post, inching the cart and meteorite forward. Since the ground was spongy, Hughes had to lay down a roadway of wooden planks. After every hundred feet of progress, the capstan had to be dug up and move another hundred feet forward, a new clearing made for the horse, and the roadway dug up and re-laid.
Hughes and his son labored for three back-breaking months to move the iron three-quarters of a mile to his house. During, this time his secrecy had been so effective that his neighbors later said they had no idea that anything out of the ordinary was going on. When it finally arrived, Hughes built a shack around it, announced he had found it--on his property, of course--and started charging twenty-five cents admission to view the heavenly visitor.
One of Hughes' early customers, unfortunately, was the attorney for the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. He had somehow deduced that the meteorite had been stolen from the company--probably by following the conspicuous trail back to the large pit on company property.2 The attorney told Hughes he knew damn well the meteorite belonged to his client, but as a matter of courtesy and to avoid a law- suit, he would graciously offer the miner fifty dollars for it. Hughes threw the man out. The lawyer then filed suit on behalf of the company to get the meteorite back, and the case went to court.
Hughes fought long and bitterly and he seems to have genuinely believed that the meteorite was rightly his. The miner's lawyer chose a novel defense. First he put several elderly Indians on the witness stand who testified that long ago the meteorite had belonged to their tribe. They said it had fallen from the moon and was a sacred object to the tribe. To ensure success in battle, the Indians testified, they used to dip their arrows in the puddles of rainwater that collected in its cavities. In addition, young braves were sent to the sacred stone in the dead of night to undergo secret initiation rituals. Hughes' lawyer presented this as solid evidence that the Indians--not the company--had prior claim to ownership.
Then the lawyer tried to cloud the issue of "ownership" of an object that had fallen from the sky. He argued that the meteorite might have fallen somewhere else and been carried to the company's land by the glaciers. Whose was it then? Or the Indians may have transported it from somewhere else. The lawyer concluded that the ownership issue was so tangled that the meteorite could only belong to the discoverer, Ellis Hughes.
The company, on the other hand, simply asserted that Hughes had deliberately and egregiously stolen the meteorite from them. They wanted it back.
The court found for the plaintiff. Immediately after the verdict, the victorious company sent a team of horses to Hughes' property and started hauling away the iron. Hughes frantically appealed the verdict to the state supreme court, and managed to get an injunction just as the meteorite was being hauled away. The company hired a twenty-four-hour guard who sat on top of the meteorite with a loaded gun while the case was being appealed.
Meanwhile, Hughes' next-door neighbor started another lawsuit, this one directed at both Hughes and the company. The neighbor contended that the meteorite had, in fact, been stolen from his land. To buttress his case he showed investigators a huge crater on his land, which he claimed had been caused by the meteorite's fall. The case was dismissed when the man's neighbors reported that they had heard a great deal of blasting being done on his property only the week before.
On July 17, 1905, the state Supreme court upheld the earlier ruling and awarded the meteorite to the Oregon Iron and Steel Company. The company carted it off to Portland, where it was unveiled with great fanfare at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in a ceremony attended by the governor. It was announced that this--the largest American meteorite--would forever remain in Oregon, its home state.
When the exposition closed, however, the Oregon Iron and Steel Company, unmoved by this patriotic rhetoric, sold it to Mrs. William Dodge for $20,600, who gave it to the American Museum of Natural History. It was the highest price paid up to that time for a single specimen in the Museum's collection. Visitors will find this massive iron on the first floor of the Museum's Hayden Planetarium [in New York], where children still climb into its holes.
1Meteorites, like most metallic objects, rust. It takes anywhere from several thousand to a million years for an iron meteorite to rust into a brown pile of shingles. The meteorites that have survived the longest on the earth come from Antarctica, where they have been frozen for 900,000 years.
2This pit was so large that half a century later a Museum curator visited the site and reported that the hole was still there, sprinkled with rusty iron shingles and flakes.
Go forward to Who Owns a Meteorite?--Oregon school children try to bring the Willamette Meteorite back from New York
Go back to The Amazing Heavenly and Earthly Journey of The Willamette Meteorite
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