King of Fort Peck

Admit it. The only physical representation we have left of long-dead dinosaurs are their bones, preserved as fossils. They can come in a range of colors, depending on the soil and water conditions in which they were preserved, but they’re still just bones.

Peck’s Rex takes a hunk out of a hadrosaur, a duck-bill dino, in this display at Fort Peck. The murals really give a great background for the displays.

I’m not saying that when you’ve seen one set of bones you’ve seen them all. They all have a different, and fascinating, story to tell.

But the Fort Peck Interpretive Center, just downstream from the 1930s-built earthen dam, has gone all technicolor in the presentation of the dinosaur bones, adding gigantic background murals that flesh out the bones and provide a context for what the creatures looked like and the type of environment in which they lived.

The centerpiece is “Peck’s Rex,” discovered in 1997 and one of the most complete Tyrannosaurs yet found. 

A life-size replica of the T. Rex looms over the lobby of the center, and the articulated skeleton is shown attacking a hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur, in the main part of the museum. Behind the scene of bones is a mural that shows what the area looked like 70-ish million years ago. It was not the arid badlands seen outside the building, but a lush region bordering the Western Interior Sea that split North America at that time.

Turn the corner and you have a representation of the marine life in that sea, including predators and prey. We humans have a fascination with predators, don’t we? Perhaps that’s built into our nature — we need to know about the things that might eat us for supper!

The Tylosaur was the apex predator in the Interior waterway that stretched up the middle of what is now North America. Note the ammonite at left in the mural. Even in the water, life then seemed to be eat or be eaten.

There is more recent history on display at the center as well.

The earthen dam is one of the biggest of its type in the world — a pile of mud and clay that was engineered in the 1930s to hold back a lake stretching 134 miles up the Missouri River. It’s one of the wonders of the public works projects that arose during the Great Depression.

The twin towers at the Fort Peck Dam are not cooling towers. They are surge towers to balance out excess water coming through the pipes from the lake.

Two tall structures rise above the power houses, but their purpose wasn’t obvious at first. I’m accustomed to cooling towers at nuclear reactors and other sites that use steam to produce electricity. Fort Peck’s generators only use the flow of water to generate electricity. The young man at the interpretive center explained that the towers are used to contain any surge in the water flow. He said that if the turbines were taken offline, the mass of water flowing down the pipes has to go somewhere, so it is diverted up the surge towers, which even have an overflow spillway that would send the water down the outside of the towers. This protects the turbines. Cool engineering.

The campground itself at Fort Peck is one of the nicest Corps of Engineers parks we’ve used. The sites are well separated and the bathrooms are spotless, two of the key things that campers like.

Our site at dusk in Fort Peck Downstream Campground.

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