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  • Messengers from space

    Meteorites such as the one found in Sams Valley in 1894 carry the universe's history with them, offering clues about its origins, says scientist Dick Pugh
  • No one knows exactly when the iron-nickel rocks from outer space rained down on Sams Valley.
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      What: Lectures on meteors by Dick Pugh, a scientist at Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, Portland State University
      When and where: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the planetarium at North Medford Hig...
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      If you go
      What: Lectures on meteors by Dick Pugh, a scientist at Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory, Portland State University

      When and where: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 22, at the planetarium at North Medford High School, 1900 N. Keene Way Drive, Medford, sponsored by Southern Oregon Skywatchers; and 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23, at ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum, 1500 E. Main St., Ashland

      For more information: Check out www.orskywatchers.org or www.scienceworksmuseum.org
  • No one knows exactly when the iron-nickel rocks from outer space rained down on Sams Valley.
    But Dick Pugh, a scientist with the Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory at Portland State University, likely knows more about the extraterrestrials associated with what is known collectively as the Sams Valley meteorite than anyone living on the third rock from the sun.
    "Six meteors have been found in Oregon, and the Sams Valley meteorite was the first ever discovered in this state," said Pugh, who will be presenting lectures on meteorites in Medford and Ashland next month. The presentations are being sponsored by a NASA outreach grant that allows Pugh to lecture all over the Pacific Northwest on meteorites.
    "These things are four and a half billion years old, left over from the origins of our solar system," he said. "They are natural space probes. They are very important in helping us understand our universe."
    Meteorites are remnants of interplanetary space travelers that survived their fiery plunge through the Earth's atmosphere. The lion's share of meteors burn out in the atmosphere, according to experts.
    "But there is at least one meteorite on every square mile of Earth, if you can find it," Pugh said, referring to the number of meteorites that have landed since time began.
    "Unfortunately, Oregon is one of the worst states in the union to find them," he said. "You are looking for black rocks on black lava rocks."
    Add the vegetation, particularly in the western part of the state, and it can be a difficult proposition, he said, although he encourages folks to keep an eye out for potential meteorites while outdoors.
    "In Kansas, where much of it is flat farmland, they have found 100," he said.
    The first space rock discovered in Sams Valley was the 15-pounder found in 1894 by George P. Lindley in the Sams Creek drainage, according to an article in the August 1967 edition of the Ore Bin, an Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries publication. The article was written by Erwin F. Lange, the late PSU professor who was Pugh's adviser in college as well as a longtime colleague and friend.
    "That first piece was found in a garden between the mouth of Sams Creek and the canyon," said Pugh, 71. "He (Lindley) didn't know what it was so he used it for a doorstop."
    After he died, his son Nolo M. Lindley, with the help of fellow Medford resident E.W. Liljigram, sold what had been determined to be a meteorite to the Foote Mineral Co. of Philadelphia in October 1914, Lange wrote.
    "They (Foote) sliced it up and sold pieces of it to museums around the world," Pugh said.
    A 2-pound slice was sold to Harvard University's meteorite collection, Lange wrote. A 2.4-pound slice was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York for $585.
    Fast forward to the 1920s, when a second, smaller rock from the meteoric shower was found in a hydraulic gold-mining operation in a Sams Creek tributary, he said.
    "No one knows where that piece is," he said. "There is a report it was given to an engineer."
    A decade later, three more pieces of the rock surfaced. They had been found years earlier by William M. Payne, who discovered them while panning for gold on his Sams Valley property, Lange wrote.
    "A number of slices were taken off it. I have a piece of that one," Pugh said.
    He plans to bring his piece of the space rock, which weighs about a pound, to Jackson County as a display during his February visit.
    A piece of the Sams Valley meteorite was discovered in 1949 in a box of rocks in the Southern Oregon Historical Society museum in Jacksonville, Pugh said. That 2-pound rock, found in the box by geologist Russell A. Morley of Salem, was believed to be one of the three rocks found by William Payne, Lange said.
    That intergalactic traveler resides in SOHS's vast collection in a storage warehouse in White City, historical society staff said.
    Several meteorites found on the other side of the planet are in the Crater Rock Museum in Central Point. The museum, at 2002 Scenic Ave., has meteorites from China, Russia and Thailand on display, according to a spokeswoman.
    A display case containing small meteorites also is available for viewing in the Josephine County Surveyor's Office in the county courthouse in Grants Pass. The display was left to DOGAMI by the late Benjamin R. Bones of Grants Pass, according to department geologist Tom Wiley.
    In 1967, some five years after Bones died, DOGAMI displayed the Bones meteorite collection at communities around the state to educate folks about how to identify intergalactic rocks that had landed on Earth. Bones was a world traveler interested in Earth sciences.
    Not all meteorites are readily apparent as visitors from outer space, even to seasoned rock hounds.
    Lakeview resident Paul Albertson, 60, a retired U.S. Postal Service employee, found an odd-looking rock about the size of the end of his thumb two dozen miles southwest of Lakeview in the Fitzwater Pass area while hunting for jasper and agates in 1976.
    A high school teacher hiking with him also thought the rock was unusual.
    "But when I took it to a rock shop, I was told it was just a rock with nickel and iron in it," he said during a telephone interview with the Mail Tribune last week. "So I just put it into an old Folgers coffee can."
    When Pugh came to the Lakeview library in 2006 — 30 years after Albertson found the rock — to make a public presentation about meteorites, Albertson fished the rock out of the can to show it to the scientist.
    "As soon as I brought it out, I could tell that he was real interested in what I had found," Albertson said.
    Sure enough, the rock dubbed the Fitzwater Pass meteorite turned out to be the sixth meteorite ever found in Oregon. A small piece of the meteorite tested at the PSU's Cascadia Meteorite Laboratory confirmed it was a meteorite made of a rare type of iron, Pugh said.
    Albertson now keeps the meteorite in a safety deposit box.
    "I don't know what I want to do with it," he said.
    Meanwhile, he keeps his eye out for any more unusual rocks.
    "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack, but I'm always looking," he said.
    Pugh figures finding that proverbial needle is worth the time and effort.
    "I get about one phone call a day from people who think they have found a meteorite," he said of his office in the only meteorite laboratory in the Pacific Northwest. "I look at maybe 1,000 a year. Of those, one in 2,000 is a new meteorite."
    Pugh, who believes there is a chance more chunks of the Sams Valley meteorite may be out there, either in the dirt or in someone's garage, reiterated that meteorite research provides valuable knowledge to humankind.
    "If anybody thinks they have a meteorite, they can call me," said the scientist, who can be reached at 503-287-6733.
    "And they can bring them in when I'm down there," he added. "They need to bring them in early so we can look at them. You just never know when the real thing will show up."
    Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.
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