University of Vermont

School of Business Administration

Book: How Do You Get a Whale in Vermont?

Alum to give tour and lecture on April 14

whale book cover
Glacial science, Noah's troubles, UVM naturalists. Alum Jeff Howe's new book digs into all of these through the tale of Vermont's official state fossil. (cover courtesy Jeff L. Howe)

In 1849, workers in Charlotte were hurrying to finish a railroad line. As they dug in the clay soil, they discovered some very strange bones. The great UVM naturalist Zadock Thompson was summoned, and he, correctly, pronounced that these were the earthly remains of a beluga whale.

A whale in Vermont? How this could be, the tale of its discovery, and how it helped to reshape geological science — is the subject of new book by UVM alum Jeff L. Howe.

He’ll speak and give a tour on Monday, April 14 at UVM’s Perkins Museum of Geology in Delehanty Hall, Trinity Campus. The event is free and open to the public.

Official fossil

Howe graduated from UVM with a master’s degree in geology in 1992, “and I was immediately hired to renovate the old Perkins Hall geology museum on a grant from the Lintilhac Foundation,” he recalls. As the curator and collections manager of the museum he began to research the story of this 11,000-year-old fossilized whale. “No surprise,” he says, “ this is where the idea for the book was born.”

“This all came quickly to a head in 1993,” Howe notes, “when a bill passed the state legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Howard Dean, declaring the ‘Charlotte Whale’ to be Vermont’s official state fossil.” But his book was percolating, with research from the state archives, for the next twenty years.

Howe left UVM in 1993, "but the story stuck with me,” he says. “It’s about much more than a whale. For one thing, it’s the story of UVM’s own Zadock Thompson, who identified the remains, cutting against the religious views of his time. And so much of 19th century science can be seen through this story of how a whale got to Charlotte.”

Schedule

From 3 p.m. to 3:45 p.m. Howe will give a tour of the Perkins Museum and the whale exhibit he helped to create.

At 4:15, in 219 Delehanty, Howe will offer a public talk based on his new book—How Do You Get a Whale in Vermont? (Little Big Trees Press, 170 pages, $14.95)— explaining how a whale fossil ended up buried beneath a Vermont farmer's field, 200 miles and two mountain ranges from the nearest sea.

The short answer is the sea came to Vermont. For several thousand years, what is now Lake Champlain was the salty Champlain Sea. Whales could travel here from the Saint Lawrence River. This one did and died. Later, as the sea receded and the land rebounded, its bones were brought up to what is now Charlotte.

Howe will tell other stories too, like how the whale fossil survived the 1927 flood, what happened in an exploratory pit that was dug in 1993 at the whale site by a UVM crew, and why Zadock Thompson’s own efforts to preserve the whale now make it very difficult to know exactly how old it is.