Two men walk through the prairie grass, thoughts of a dam design in their minds. Ben Ferguson and George McMillan are surveying an area for a dam on Dirty Creek, walking a contour line to determine how many acre feet of water the future dam will hold.
“George was the first to see it. I was about 50 feet away, and he hollered at me,” Ferguson recalls today, 50 years after that surveying trip. “I saw a portion of a femur sticking out of the bank. We knew we had found something. Of course, we didn’t know what it was. We just knew it was something big.”
Something big was right. What Ferguson and McMillan discovered that day while working eventually proved to be a significant find in the world of paleontology: two Columbian mammoths entwined together by their tusks. A find that eventually became known as “The Clash of the Titans.”
The two 40-year-old mammoths, each with a broken tusk, became locked together, likely battling for mating rights more than 10,000 years ago. Unable to separate, they fell over and died.
Ferguson and McMillan, who worked for the Soil Conservation, showed their find to Bill Hudson at the Crawford NAPA store, Ferguson remembers, and then Ivan Burr, the curator at Fort Robinson was notified.
During the summer of 1962, Mike Voorhies was a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, finishing a final summer of field work before enrolling in graduate courses at the University of Wyoming. His field work brought him to the Nebraska Badlands north of Crawford, collecting fossils and working at Fort Robinson’s Trailside Museum.
That June Voorhies and the rest of the group were reassigned to investigate Ferguson and McMillan’s discovery.
“I can’t believe it’s been 50 years,” Voorhies said.
The group excavated the site for four or five weeks, laboring under the impression, at least in the early days, that they were uncovering a single mammoth.
“It was fun. Most of us were teenagers or in our 20s. None of us had collected a complete skeleton. It was very exciting to have a whole skeleton.”
Painstakingly, the group uncovered the fossil, bit by bit. As the group revealed the skull, they realized one of the tusks appeared to be pointed in the wrong direction.
“The group was disappointed because every bone to that point had been perfect,” Voorhies said. They speculated that the mammoth had fallen forward and broken the tusk. Work continued, and they soon realized there was a second mammoth entangled with the first.
“That made it even more exciting,” Voorhies said.
Bruce McIntosh and Tim Lane were high school seniors that summer, working with the UNL group on their field collections. The days began at 3 a.m. each morning and ended when the heat of the day set in.
“It just worked out that while we were doing the collecting, this mammoth was found,” Lane said. “Everything I was doing that summer was exciting. It was just all new to me. It was quite exciting to be able to work on (the mammoths).”
For Lane, one of the most memorable moments occurred when the crew picked up a front leg of one of the mammoths after the casting was finished and discovered a third fossil – that of a wolf pinned underneath the massive elephants.
McIntosh didn’t realize the impact “Benny and George,” - as the mammoths were called - would make until reporters from all over the world started showing up at the site. He and Lane were assigned the job of making a road of planks from the site to the area where the skulls were to be loaded on a truck for transport, McIntosh said.
“It was a very worthwhile experience. I feel privileged to have taken part.”
As the fossils were exhumed, they were transported to the Trailside Museum, where the public was able to view them. When Voorhies left for his graduate studies in August, the entire collection, with the exception of the second mammoth’s pelvis, had been unearthed.
The specimens were eventually shipped to UNL and housed with the rest of the closed collections.
“I didn’t see the mammoths again until 1975,” Voorhies said about leaving the excavation site. In 1975, he started working at the State Museum in Lincoln.
“Everyone wanted to bring the specimens home (to Crawford),” Voorhies said, but there wasn’t a place suitable for such an exhibit.
The mammoths would remain in Lincoln for 43 years.
Mark Harris, associate director of the NU State Museum, said the Crawford mammoths, while in Lincoln, were used to make comparisons with other fossil finds over the decades but remained unique.
“Nothing in the fossil world had ever been found this way,” said Harris, who was born the same year the mammoths were discovered.
A number of factors contributed to the mystique surrounding “The Clash of the Titans.” While elk are sometimes found locked together by their antlers, it is rare for elephants to become entangled. For them to do so, die and be covered rapidly enough by silt to be preserved and then found again by humans before erosion deteriorated the fossils is stunning.
“All of those factors coming together represents one of those times in the paleontological world when scientists’ attention peaks,” Harris said. “I would bet my life savings that no two mammoths will ever be found in this state again.”
While the fossils resided in Lincoln, there was a movement building to return them to Crawford.
The group behind the Prehistoric Prairies Discovery Center/Committee set out to raise funds to construct a building for the mammoths and the Hudson-Meng site. When the Forest Service allocated funds for Hudson-Meng’s building, the PPDC realized they’d never raise enough money for the multi-million project envisioned.
The Trailside Museum had at one point been considered as a home for the fossils, but was dismissed, both Voorhies and Chadron State College professor Mike Leite said. The historic building’s stage limited the space available and the lack of fire protection was a concern.
Harris joined the staff at the State Museum 14 years ago.
“I had always been fascinated with (the mammoths), sitting there in their plastic jackets,” he said.
“He took an interest in this project like nobody ever had before in Lincoln,” Leite said of Harris.
Harris began working with the PPDC and found a way to allocate funds that, combined with the PPDC money, allowed for Trailside to be renovated. Pine Ridge Job Corps students tore out the stage and a fire sprinkler system was installed to protect the valuable collection.
The mammoths deserved to be brought back to the Panhandle, said Rosemary Petersen, one of PPDC’s original board members.
“These are a world class find. There is none other like that. They are important,” she said.
With Trailside set to become the mammoths’ new home, Voorhies became re-involved with the fossils he helped uncover in college. The plaster jacketing Voorhies and his crew encased the bones in preserved the specimens for display.
“These things were found in such amazingly pristine condition, relatively speaking, in the fossil world. All we had to do was protect them in a controlled environment,” Harris said.
The bones were prepped in Lincoln and the pieces of the exhibit base were built there as well and then assembled in Crawford. The mammoths were shipped across the state “very, very carefully” in a rental truck, Harris said.
The only door at Trailside large enough for the skulls to fit through was a west-side door that no longer had exterior access – no stairs or ramps. A company that raises and moves buildings was brought in to jack up the truck four feet off the ground until the back was level with the door.
“It took most of the day, inch by inch. We were all very nervous,” Harris said.
In 2005, after more than four decades away from home, “The Clash of the Titans” exhibit opened at Fort Robinson.
“We were all just delighted when the bones finally went back to northwest Nebraska,” Voorhies said.
Both Voorhies and Lane returned to the Trailside this summer to see the mammoths. Voorhies brought his grandchildren out, passing on the excitement of the find to a new generation.
The exhibit draws an average of 9,500 visitors a year, said Pattie Norman, the museum store associate. They come from all of the U.S. and from countries like Italy and Germany. This year visitors from the Netherlands have been frequent. A segment on the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” and a NOVA special are often mentioned as how visitors learned about “The Clash of the Titans.”
Northwest Nebraska is an under-recognized destination, Harris said, especially in relation to paleontology. The Fossil Freeway, a highway corridor from Interstate 80 to Interstate 90 in South Dakota, features phenomenal fossil sites along its route, including “The Clash of the Titans” exhibit.
“I don’t think Nebraskans understand that northwest Nebraska is one of the richest fossil areas of the world. It would be nice if people took a look at it,” Harris said.