SURVEY NOTES

Glad You Asked: What is Utah’s Largest Meteorite?

by Jim Davis


The Drum Mountains meteorite at the Smithsonian. Flat surface at top is where the meteorite was cut for sectioning. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drum_Mountains_meteorite_in_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg

The Drum Mountains meteorite at the Smithsonian. Flat surface at top is where the meteorite was cut for sectioning. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Drum_Mountains_meteorite_in_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg

Hands down, the Drum Mountains meteorite is the biggest meteorite from Utah. The iron-nickel meteorite is more than five times heavier than the collective weight of all 25 other official meteorites of Utah. At 1,164 pounds, it was at the time of its discovery the 9th largest meteorite to be recovered in the nation. The Drum Mountains meteorite has been held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History since transfer from Topaz—the War Relocation Authority’s (WRA) Central Utah Project—in October of 1944, three weeks after its discovery.

Akio Ujihara, of West Los Angeles, and Yoshio Nishimoto, of Stockton, California, found the meteorite on or before September 24, 1944, while rockhounding for chalcedony for a lesson at the Topaz Lapidary School. They at once recognized that the rock was out of place, the size of a “potato sack” and the color of “burnt sienna.” Spectacular “thumbprints,” called regmaglypts, patterned its surface. Upon striking it with a hammer they knew it was pure metal by the sound. They detached chips off the meteorite and sent one to the Smithsonian with a sketch and description. 

The letter arrives on the desk of Edward P. Henderson, Associate Curator, Mineralogy and Petrology. Henderson was keen on finding out the location of the meteorite, if there were others nearby, if it was on public land, and if a crater was present. He requests a site visit from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Salt Lake City. Two weeks after the discovery, USGS geologist Arthur E. Granger is guided to the site. Henderson writes Granger, “. . . the sample is an iron meteorite, and if his [Nishimoto’s] measurements are correct, it is a large one, and therefore an important new find.” Granger reports, “The specimen was found in an area of low hills lying between the Drum Mountains and Little Drum Mountains” and “The country rock is entirely basic or basaltic lavas . . .” Granger finds no section corner markers, but concludes from “other observations” that the meteorite is in Township 15 South, Range 10 West, and “approximately” Section 29. This section is now geologically mapped as the Drum Mountains Rhyodacite, a dark-colored volcanic rock that spans the entirety of the broad saddle between the Drum and Little Drum Mountains. Section 29 is one square mile of federal public land. 

Inexplicably, Henderson’s official report published four years later gives the location as 5 miles east-northeast of Section 29, at 39° 30’ N, 112° 54’ W. By excluding seconds in the latitude and longitude coordinates, the area cannot be defined more precisely than around one square mile and places the meteorite on gently sloping stream-deposited (alluvial) sediments—more than 2 miles from bedrock. Yet in reinforcement of the geologist’s description, G.V. Morris, Evacuee Property Officer for the WRA at Topaz, recounts the journey with Granger, “. . . more or less extensive outcroppings of some black rock and the ground immediately thereabout more or less was covered by loose boulders.” Granger and Morris are the only officials to see the meteorite in its original setting. 

A meteorite this size might have produced a small crater, but none was found, perhaps erased by erosion. It lies in loose gravel, the bulk of it above ground. Mechanical weathering from wind-blown dust highlights the internal gridded crisscrossing fabric (called Widmanstätten) that stands in relief on the exterior. The buried portion is heavily weathered, corroded from continuous contact with soil moisture, the regmaglypts replaced by corrosion pits. Granger estimates it has sat in place for at least a century, but never sees the deteriorated underside. The weathering of the exposed section of the meteorite is minimal, a few hundredths of an inch, enough to remove any flow lines, or as Henderson writes to Ujihara, “. . . delicate flight markings . . . [which] differ a little from the big pits or depressions you noted (and said resembled Swiss cheese).” Oddly, when the story is finally released, newspapers quote Ujihara and omit the most descriptive word, “Swiss.” 

After Granger’s site visit Nishimoto and Ujihara muster friends and hire “local boys” to load the meteorite and truck it back to Topaz where it was placed on display for residents to view. Nishimoto then arranges for the meteorite to be transported by rail from Delta, Utah, to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. 

Topaz and the Drum Mountains/Little Drum Mountains

Topaz and the Drum Mountains/Little Drum Mountains

The Drum Mountains meteorite reinforced and contributed to future court rulings on meteorite ownership, such as they are property of the federal government if found on federal lands and subject to the 1906 Antiquities Act and that meteorites cannot be acquired through mining claims on federal land. Nishimoto staked a claim, or attempted to, on the site, likely at the suggestion of Morris, who mentions this particular to Henderson in a letter. This letter prompts Henderson to write the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, as to whether this would be an issue obtaining the specimen. The Assistant Secretary responds to Henderson that meteorites, like caverns, are “crystalline deposits marketable as curiosities,” and not patentable under mining laws. Regardless, no record of this claim seems to exist. 

Legally, meteorites are the property of the landowner. Henderson states in his letter to Granger, “If the meteorite is now on public land it is the property of the U.S. government. . . ” The meteorite’s transfer to the Smithsonian is swift, before a news release. Morris writes Henderson, “As far as I know the knowledge of the discovery has been kept within the bounds of the immediate center, and no publicity has been released except in the residence’s local paper [Topaz Times, October 11, 1944] which ran one story inviting the resident public here to inspect the specimen.” Nishimoto and Ujihara write Henderson, “For your information, both the University of Utah and the State Government of Utah have discovered with regret that the specimen has left the State and is now in your hands.” 

Henderson writes Morris and requests specifics on Nishimoto and Ujihara and the circumstances of their discovery. Ujihara writes to Henderson on letterhead from the Topaz Lapidary School, stating, “The pleasure is mine to communicate with a great scientist like Mr. Henderson through our finding which was merely an accident. As for myself, I lost my home, business, and major part of my savings due to the evacuation. But it is only infinitesimal compared to the millions of people of war zones. My only desire is that by this incident it may benefit to the scientific world and in some way it may open a way to establish a better world for the coming generations. . . ” 

The Arizona State University (Tempe) slice of the Drum Mountains meteorite is one of several sent to meteoritic institutions around the world. This slice has been polished and treated with a nitric acid solution to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern—a latticework of ribbon-like crystals of iron-nickel alloys (kamacite and taenite) that differ in color and luster due to varying concentrations of nickel. The sample weighs about 1.4 pounds. Photo by Devin L. Schrader/Center for Meteorite Studies/ ASU. Courtesy of the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.

The Arizona State University (Tempe) slice of the Drum Mountains meteorite is one of several sent to meteoritic institutions around the world. This slice has been polished and treated with a nitric acid solution to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern—a latticework of ribbon-like crystals of iron-nickel alloys (kamacite and taenite) that differ in color and luster due to varying concentrations of nickel. The sample weighs about 1.4 pounds. Photo by Devin L. Schrader/Center for Meteorite Studies/ ASU. Courtesy of the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.

Although under no obligation, the Smithsonian, using funds from an endowment for obtaining specimens, allots a finder’s fee to Ujihara and Nishimoto of $700 ($11,000 adjusted for inflation). Henderson writes Ickes, “We intend to reward these men for their discovery and have reason to believe they will accept it without hesitation.” Newspapers at the time had such titles as “Utah Meteorite Purchased,” though it was not a transaction because the meteorite was recovered on federal land; rather, it was an award for efforts and to more than cover moving and shipping expenses. 

The Smithsonian has a long history of meteorite collection and curation, scientific study, and collaboration with other meteoritical institutions and has been the traditional repository of meteorites found on federal land. The Smithsonian cut the Drum Mountains meteorite and sent samples, from largest to smallest, to Chicago, Moscow, Tempe, Ann Arbor, Calcutta, Madrid, and Harvard. Henderson also arranged, entirely unconventionally, for a slice to go to Ujihara and Nishimoto. Henderson writes Morris, “Most likely these men would appreciate a small polished slice as a memento of their discovery and I see no reason why we cannot present them each one.” In February 1950, a 6-ounce polished and etched slice was sent to Nishimoto in Stockton, California, and presumably one was sent to Ujihara’s address as well. Both discoverers of the Drum Mountains meteorite persisted in their zeal for rockhounding and lapidary, continuing in gem and Earth science clubs in California and appearing in magazines and articles for their techniques and notable finds. 

*Correspondence from Smithsonian Accession 168531. Misspellings in quotations are corrected.