Where to Find Cretaceous Fossils at the C & D Canal
The dredge spoil piles along the C&D (Chesapeake and Delaware) Canal in Delaware are the definition of a classic fossil collecting location. Generations of fossil collectors have picked through these piles and collected untold numbers of Cretaceous fossils. All of this may not be fully appreciated at your first glance of the overgrown, phragmites covered mud plain. Honestly, they were never really much to look at. “Seek and ye shall find” as the old saying goes, provided you are not afraid of some mud…um…possibly a lot of mud if it is rainy.
ABOVE: Cretaceous gastropods are a common find in the spoil piles.
Engineers completed construction of the 14 mile long C & D Canal in 1829 though, there have been many subsequent improvements and dredging over the years on this very busy connection between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. The dredge activity cut through Upper Cretaceous sediments of the Mt. Laurel Formation which is what brings both the fossils and the collectors to walk the spoil piles in sight of large, ocean-going freighters at Reedy Point.
Fossils from the location are well documented. Although vertebrate fossils like shark teeth are possible, the majority of the finds are invertebrates like small bivalve steinkerns (internal molds), gastropods, oysters and echinoderms. Will you find a two-foot long ammonite? Probably not as this area has been picked by collectors for more than a century. But occasional sections of cephalopod shell, such as ammonite or baculite are in the mix. Belemnitella americana, another common fossil squid at the canal is now the state fossil of Delaware.
Most people collect at the spoil pile locations on either side of the canal near the entrance onto the upper Delaware Bay at Reedy Point. The term “spoil pile” may not always be accurate as some of the better collecting can be flat muddy areas. The spoils are areas bordered by an old earthen berm. Mud from the canal dredging was deposited within the berm.
Basically you are searching any exposed or eroded area within the berm area. These can be reached by dirt access roads beside the canal on both sides beneath the Reedy Point Bridge. The south side spoils accessed from Reedy Point Road tend to be more clear, but explore both sides it you have the time. When you get to the Canal on either side turn, toward Delaware Bay and follow the dirt access roads to the spoil piles. Fossils are not found along the swift moving waters of the canal itself. Stay away from the edge. Turn and look away from the canal to find the fossil areas. Searching in the spring before the heavy growth of vegetation is also helpful. If you’re more adventurous, other spoils exist along the length of the canal though access to them can be more difficult and a bit hit or miss.
The canal is part of Intracoastal Waterway and under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. Recreational collecting is allowed, but the Corps can close the access roads at any time if a project is underway. Wear old shoes.
Scott Stepanski is a mineral collector and co-author of Gem Trails of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He also produces the world’s largest selection of mineral and fossil rubber stamps at http://buttersidedownstamps.com.