Route 66 Series: See You Later, Crater
There’s something very unsettling to me about meteors. While most of them are harmless, burning up into crumbs when they pass through earth’s atmosphere, a rare few of them are not. A rare few of them, you could say, pack a knock-out punch. I think most experts agree now that a meteor and its ensuing chaos was largely responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs and most life on earth at that time. I won’t go into the gruesome details here, but let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t around to witness the impact or the aftermath.
I’m unable to do a ton of research on it either, because frankly, it gives me the creeps. I imagine it would give a lot of people the creeps, but on the contrary, people seem more fascinated with the concept than anything. Especially Hollywood. They made millions of dollars by handing Bruce Willis a drill and having him save the world from a “global killer” asteroid in the movie “Armageddeon,” released in 1998. Tinsel Town also did pretty well with Deep Impact (1998), another story of a global-killer meteor hurdling towards earth, only (SPOILER ALERT) things don’t work out as well as they did when Bruce Willis was involved. The lesson there being to always go with Bruce Willis.
As for the meteor that did the dinos in, there have been scores of books written on the subject. Podcasts go over the impact and its results in grim detail. New scientific articles are still coming out, some with surprising information on what it must have been like to be around at the time of the blast. And Chicxulub Crater holds a stunning allure with people all over the world. While 66 million years of shifting plates and moving ground means it’s not as simple as walking up to a giant hole in the ground and looking in, the impact shaped the Yucatan Peninsula in myriads of ways that are still visible today. As such, the area draws its fair share of tourists every year. The site is so famous that even Google pays homage to it in its gown Google-y way (google “Chicxulub Crater” to see what I’m talking about).
Even I have to admit that it might be kind of cool to see something like that. So, imagine my pleasure (or pain?) when I learned that there is actually quite a large meteor crater right here in the United States that anyone can visit at any time. A giant hole in the earth, sitting quietly in the desert outside of Winslow, Arizona. At 55,000 years old, it’s a baby compared to its Chicxulub counterpart, so the marks it left on the surrounding landscape are all still clearly visible. The site is called Meteor Crater Natural Landmark, or to the people who run the place – Barringer Crater.
The meteor that made this crater is quite a bit smaller than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists guess it was only about 160 feet across as opposed to over six miles wide. But it seems that size does not always matter when it comes to meteors. This one still managed to strike the earth with the force of about 20 million tons of TNT. An impact that was a bit rough on the ears for any animals or prehistoric people hanging about. There was also the proverbial blinding flash of light, a blast so hot that the meteor itself vaporized, and shock waves that caused disruption and devastation in a radius spanning several miles in each direction.
Fast forward tens of thousands of years to the nineteenth century, when people were migrating all across the country from the east. Now picture this, if you will. Crossing the country in a covered wagon, or on foot, or on horseback. Neither of which would make for easy travel, especially when compared to the smooth highways and air-conditioned cars of today. The countryside is open and desolate, very desert-y with little water, yet things are going well until you’re standing at the rim of a giant hole in the ground. And I mean giant – similar in width and depth to the great grooves of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Going through it falls somewhere in the “aw hell no” territory. Yet going around it is going to cause a considerable detour because dang, that’s one big hole.
Despite the somewhat limited communications of the era, word quickly spread about the giant hole in the desert that was causing major disruptions with local travelers and would-be settlers. Enough people complained that it eventually came to the attention of the scientific community. The first scientific paper on the anomaly was published in 1891 by a scientist named Albert E. Foote. After analyzing some iron samples pulled from within the crater, along with microscopic diamond samples (oooh diamonds are forever), he deemed the hole a meteor crater. He also hyped a great deal on the crater’s mining potential, since he theorized several mineral deposits were hiding within that big hole.
Yet he faced some opposition from other members of the science world. Like Grove Karl Gilbert, then chief geologist of the US Geological Survey. After his own investigations inside the crater and the surrounding area, he deemed the hole was the result of some ancient volcanic steam explosion. According to Gilbert, since there were only fragmentary samples of minerals deep inside the crater, and no major signs of a giant piece of space rock lingering about, the crater simply couldn’t have been caused by a meteor. No way, no how.
So it sparked a bit of a debate, as many scientific subjects tend to do these days. The back and forth was so intense that it continued for the next decade, all while settlers kept poking their way around the giant hole and finding places to settle down and start communities. That’s when Daniel M. Barringer enters the story.
Mr. Barringer was a geological scientist who also liked to dabble in mining. Especially around the Arizona desert, where a select few gold and silver mines had put some considerable coin in his pocket. In 1903, Barringer caught wind of the crater outside Winslow, and he immediately jumped on the “it’s a meteor” side of the debate. Whether he read Foote’s paper or not, he also believed there was a lot of wealth to be had in that crater, and he wanted to cash in. So he filed a mining claim on the entire site, resulting in a land grant signed by Theodore Roosevelt himself. The ink was still wet on that grant when Barringer started drawing up plans and theories on what he believed was lying under the dirt outside of Winslow. If the crater was in fact caused by an iron meteor, given its size, he estimated the offending space rock would have left an iron ore lode (“lode” meaning a large stash of mineral) worth more than a billion dollars. 1903 dollars. Which means daaaaanng.
Over the ensuing years, Barringer sank a fortune into that crater trying to locate the iron ore load that he thought would put him over the top. But little did he know, it didn’t exist. Because you may recall that the meteor actually vaporized on impact. While you and I can easily discern that from Google, it wasn’t as apparent back then, and it’s not like the meteor left a note to explain where it went. How rude. By the late 1920s, Barringer had sunk over $500,000 dollars into geological surveys, explorations, and examinations of that crater. But his efforts yielded no iron ore, and no proof that it was even a meteor that had created the giant hole.
Needless to say, the scientific community began to throw some serious shade at Barringer. Many geologists had been converted to Gilbert’s volcano theory, bolstered on by the lack of meteor evidence from Barringer. Now some people, when everyone tells them they’re wrong, decide to back down. Daniel Barringer was not one of those people. He only “dug in” harder (mining pun), determined to prove his theory and make his fortune. So he shifted his focus to proving that the crater was caused by a meteor in the first place. But despite yet more massive efforts, which took another big bite out of his fortune and even bigger bite out of the crater (he dug almost 1500 feet down at one point), no iron ore deposit, or meteor, ever surfaced.
By 1929, Barringer was getting advanced in years, but he still wasn’t ready to give up. So he hired an astronomer named F.R. Moulton to press on with the investigation. Funded by the Barringer company, Moulton began his own studies of the crater. And it wasn’t long before he came up with the winning theory – that the impact of such a heavy mass would have caused enough heat to completely vaporize the meteor. A perfect fit, because it cleaned up those pesky questions of why there wasn’t a huge meteor at the bottom of the huge hole. While Moulton didn’t have any hard proof for his theory, he was still able to swing a large portion of the scientific community over to team Barringer, essentially giving his employer some badly needed validation. Which is priceless, isn’t it? So while Barringer never got his fortune from Meteor Crater, he did get his reputation restored. Although it came a bit too late for him to enjoy it, since he died a mere ten days after Moulton published his findings.
By the 1930s, interest in the crater had increased tenfold, and it happened to coincide nicely with the addition of a very famous highway carving a path right through Winslow. Route 66, among its many other accomplishments, can be largely credited with putting Meteor Crater on the map. And the Barringer family, once again, started making moves to cash in. In 1953, they renamed the area “Barringer Crater Company,” and they used what little remained of their patriarch’s fortune to turn the site into a tourist attraction, even building a private science museum on the crater’s rim.
The attraction brought them enough income to continue conducting geological investigations, and in 1960, the irrefutable proof finally came that the crater had been formed by a meteor. A geologist named Eugene M. Shoemaker found traces of coesite and stishovite, two very rare kinds of rock that suggested the ground around them had been “severely shocked by an instantaneous overpressure” (Wikipedia). Since everyone knows that shocked quartz cannot be created by volcanoes (I mean, duh), the only explanation left for Meteor Crater was, in fact, a meteor. Bravo, Barringer. After all that time, you and Foote were finally proven right.
It didn’t really change much around the crater though. Tourism money continued to roll in for the Barringers, and scientists continued to flock to the area for research. Even NASA got in on it in the 1960s and 1970s, using the area to train astronauts for their upcoming Apollo adventures on the moon.
Today, Meteor Crater National Landmark remains a popular stop on Route 66, bringing in over 270,000 visitors annually. In 2019, despite all of my creeps, one of those visitors was myself. I thought a lot of things as I looked down into that crater – one so big that these pictures simply fail to do it justice. I mean, I think anyone who sees something like that would be forced to think some things over. Because right there is the irrefutable proof that no matter how hard you work, no matter what you do, or what you bicker with other scientists about, it could all come to naught. A giant meteor could land right on your head and leave nothing but a giant, smoldering hole in the ground.
But it made me think some other, more pleasant thoughts as well. Like… how kind of neat it was that Barringer didn’t give up no matter how many people made fun of him. Oh sure, he didn’t get his fortune, but he proved his point. He found something to believe in and he stuck with it, no matter what anyone else had to say about it. To me, that’s kind of impressive. Because you see, I’m not that rock solid in a lot of things (whoops – meteor pun). I’m… well, I waver. I back down. If someone gets in my face and wants to argue a certain point with me, especially politically, I’m pretty quick to put my hands in my pockets and shuffle my feet. “Well gee,” I’m likely to say in a barely audible mumble. “I guess I never thought of it that way.” Then that’s it. Conversation over.
Sometimes, I truly believe that has its merits, especially in today’s world. I will always think it’s a good thing to be empathetic to others, to try and see the world through their lens, to try and soul search and admit to some areas where I might have been wrong. But there are times when it’s important to stand your ground too, and to tell you the truth, I’m not always sure when it’s time to speak out and time to just listen. In other words, I don’t always know how to stand up for myself. So, perhaps I can take a page from Barringer’s book. Because as important as it is to have empathy, it’s equally important to stand up for yourself and others when needed. In fact, people standing firm in the face of adversity has brought about some of the biggest and most miraculous changes in this world.
Through all my shy, introverted layers, I do have a voice in there. A voice with mountains of education in certain areas to back it up, and that can be a very powerful thing. Once I really learn how to use it, I could make my own kind of meteor impact. And that’s kind of neat! So if you need me, I’ll be in my room, looking in the mirror, flexing my Barringer muscles, and teaching myself to stand up.
All while hopefully avoiding any major asteroids or meteors.
Route 66 Road Trip & Meteor Crater Visit – 2019
The Illustrated Route 66 Historical Atlas – J. Hinckley
Route 66 Road Trip – Moon & C. Taylor
Meteor Crater: A Brief History – Meteor Crater Visitor’s Pamphlet
All photos by M.B. Henry. For more from our Route 66 adventures, click here.
To peruse more of my writing and published works – click here
And finally – to plan your own visit to Meteor Crater National Landmark/Barringer Crater – click here.