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Rice’s Fossil Pit: A Local Landmark Disappeared
By Nancy E. Sheppard

FossilP imageDrive off of Harris Creek Road in Hampton near Fox Hill and you’ll find a rather out of place lake. You could never tell that this lake once attracted people to dig for fossils and become engrossed in the prehistoric. This lake was once a 70-foot-deep, empty depression better known as Rice’s Fossil Pit.

In the 1940s, William and Madeline Rice bought 18 acres of land and used it as a borrow pit. In 1960, Mr. Rice was digging when he came across a once in a lifetime find – the 60-footlong fossilized skeleton of some sort of whale. He called the Smithsonian Institute and paleontologists arrived at his Hampton home within days. What Mr. Rice found was a previously unknown species of bowhead whale the scientists would later name Balaena ricei in honor of its founder. The animal dated back to the Miocene Epoch, laying quietly in the pit for 20 million years. The scientists packed the fossil but hadn’t traveled beyond Yorktown when they received word that Rice once again struck fossilized gold when he found a 500-pound piece of Miocene star coral.

Paleontologists flocked to the pit, dubbing it one of the "richer fossil finds in the world.” It was full of Miocene era marine life, giving insight into the geography of Hampton during this time period. They determined that it was once under approximately 100 feet of water and all that died simply settled to the bottom. The Rice children, particularly 8-year-old Kenny, loved hanging around the digs, finding fossils, and Kenny became a relative expert on the fossils found in his backyard. In 1966, Kenny was driving a tractor to the pit when it toppled over the edge and he was killed.

On January 1, 1967, Kenny’s parents turned their grief into something positive when they opened the Kenneth E. Rice Memorial Museum and Fossil Pit. For a nominal fee, the public was welcome to come, dig, and keep whatever they found. Mr. Rice was always around to help and educate his visitors. It was a landmark attraction, with schools taking field trips to the pit and tourists making a stop to see if they could find a new species of their own. Jan Rice, the Rices’ daughter-in-law, described it as saying, "To me, it was always like walking back through time into the prehistoric era.”

In 1979, William Rice passed away from a heart attack but his wife continued to operate the landmark attraction for another decade. In 1989, she made the difficult decision to close the Fossil Pit due to her failing health and the city’s unwillingness to take over operation. Madeline Rice passed away in 2000. Her son, William Jr., sold the property to Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in 2005. They planned to use the grounds to expand their facilities and build a playground for children.

Rather ironically, the pit that once held a treasure trove of Miocene era marine fossils, filled with water and is now a lake. The church stated that they plan on leaving it as such in order to attract nature but deter fossil hunters and amateur historians from trespassing.

Even nearly two decades after its closure, Rice’s Fossil Pit remains a fond memory for adults who were raised on the Peninsula but also a lost piece of historical discovery. What the pit had yet to reveal may never be known.

 





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