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August 5, 2009 > Unearthing the Ice Age of Irvington

Unearthing the Ice Age of Irvington

By Joyce Blueford

The Tri City area has many natural geological wonders that the Math Science Nucleus, a non profit organization, is bringing to the attention of the community through the Children's Natural History Museum. This series of articles, beginning in the July 29, 2009 issue of Tri-City Voice newspaper, will allow the reader to understand their worldwide significance. If interested in helping out with the unfolding concept plan please contact the author (

Discovery of the Ice Age Fossils in Irvington

Dr. Orlando Gordon Yates, a dentist, discovered the first fossils in the Irvington District in 1868, the year of the 7.0 earthquake that devastated the East Bay. Dr. Yates could not determine what they were. He sent the fossils to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. and it was established that they were fossils of Ice Age origin.

In late 1870's the Washington-Mission San Jose Station was bustling with activity. As part of the Central Pacific Railroad of California, it was the last link of the Transcontinental Railroad. This area had vineyards and farm produce that supplied consumers wherever the railroad traveled. In 1884, the Gallegos Winery was built into a cliff created by slow movement on the Hayward Fault. In the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the brick winery collapsed; remnants of where the wine was stored can still be seen today.

The town of Irvington was established in 1884 just west of the railroad station. This area experienced an explosion of homes and industry. Gravel was an important commodity and local sources were preferred. A rich gravel pit was found very close to the railroad, an important factor for building railroad tracks and new roads.

When the University of California, Berkeley started their Paleontology Department in the early 1900's, they undoubtedly knew about fossils at this site, but the better preserved site of La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles took most of their attention. It was not until the 1940's that Drs. Charles Camp and Ruben A. Stirton were approached by Wes Gordon, an amateur paleontologist and teacher, looking for local fossil sites. Wes, the assistant superintendent for the fledgling Hayward Area Recreation District (HARD) was trying to interest children in the wonders of science. Fossils seemed to pique their interest.

Dr. Stirton, who found fossils at the Yates site in 1934, recommended that Gordon take the boys to this quarry in Irvington. When Wes and his students followed Dr. Stirton's advice, fossils were lying within plain sight sparking interest for years to come. Students found specimens and Dr. Stirton would pick up the fossils to study at U.C. Berkeley. Under Dr. Stirton, Donald Savage, then a graduate student, was given the task of looking at vertebrate fossils throughout the state, including the Irvington site. Wes Gordon, with his team of "Boy Paleontologists" would find fossils that represented the early Ice Age in California.

Donald Savage received his Ph.D. and was the first to define the site as representative of the beginning of the Pleistocene epoch in North America Dr. Savage called it the Irvingtonian Stage, which is recognized today. If you find similar fauna anywhere in North America, they are called "Irvingtonian."

The next article will focus on Wes Gordon's amazing story of preserving the fossils for generations.

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