Descending the stone steps of the Ladonia Fossil Park is like stepping back into another age. Stepping down into the mostly dry bed of the North Sulphur River, the ground is active territory for all manner of arrowheads, fossils, and interesting rocks.
Archeology enthusiasts flock to the site and when I visited the site, I could see more than 10 people surveying the riverbed. There is a Facebook group dedicated to the location with more than 2900 members where people routinely share and discuss their finds. People frequently bring out five-gallon buckets full of their finds and there is history to back up a rich historic background to the Fannin County area.
Members of the Caddo Tribe lived in this area centuries ago and fossil finds have pointed to a rich ecosystem of mammoths and dinosaurs in this area. But what if the plethora of fossils and the ease of finding them is due not entirely to the wealth of history in Fannin County but due to a water project with unintended consequences?
Looking at a map of the North Sulphur River it is easy to see that the river is quite straight, unnaturally so in fact, when I visited the fossil park I noticed that it was possible to see the State Highway 34 bridge from Farm-to-Market Road 2990. This, despite significant distance between the two bridges. In looking back at the history of this area, I found a project from the 1920s that had attempted to create more useable farmland in the area but easily exceeded its planned outcomes.
The North Sulphur River was a much smaller and flood-prone area prior to the late 1920s. A long segment was dredged – it was originally twenty feet wide - and the results were massive erosion. What had been a slowly flowing creek turned into a quickly flowing river. More and more soil flowed with this new channel and the North Sulphur became wider and wider. What had been 20 feet across is now, a century later, more than 300 feet across.
While this project has opened up the possibility of rich fossil beds to be explored it has also resulted in the bridges in the area having to be replaced multiple times in my lifetime, and the growth of the river has not stopped. Today there is a new plan in place to try to halt the erosion and that plan is the Lake Ralph Hall project.
Placing a lake on top of the area would halt much of the erosion but some have expressed concerns about covering up future prehistoric finds under the proposed lake. The lake would leave the current Ladonia Fossil Park completely inundated with water. The riverbed to the west would also be covered. Under the current plan the Fossil Park would be relocated several miles east next to a proposed spillway.
The Ladonia Fossil Park is an interesting adventure in archeology and has a large amount of diverse finds that emerge regularly but who is to say that the new area will have that same prospect. How much of Fannin County prehistory will be submerged and lost forever?