Remembering Rice’s Fossil Pit in Hampton, Virginia

My daughter, Rory, is a fifth grade Alexandria public school student with just a few months left before making the big jump to middle-school. Recently she had a field trip with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in order to study, first hand, the plant and animal life of the bay. Thinking about this called up memories of school field trips I took when I was her age. Growing up in the Hampton Roads area, many of my field trips were related to the bay and its wildlife. But the one field trip that stands out as my favorite of them all was to a rather unique treasure of Hampton Roads: Rice’s Fossil Pit.

I had been a student at Hampton Roads Academy only a few months when the trip happened as part of Mrs. Sailor’s sixth-grade science class, as I recall. We were told ahead of time to bring in a digging implement of some sort. I remember going to A&N with my mother and finding a military-style collapsible shovel / pick, which I still have today.

We bussed out there, down Fox Hill Rd. to Harris Creek Rd. ( map ), and as we pulled up to park all I could see was trees. As I approached on foot, however, the pit revealed itself. It was a striking sight — 70 feet deep and a huge distance across with terraces along the edges winding down at different heights. I remember feeling amazed and awed at the site of it.

Jan Rice, daughter in-law of the man who brought this pit to the public (more on that in a moment) recently described the experience of the pit in a manner with which I completely agree.

“To me, it was always like walking back through time into the prehistoric era,” says Rice, who accompanied her mother-in-law into the pit almost every day for an evening stroll.

“When you looked around, it was almost unbelievable. It was like being in a different world.”

We wound our way to the bottom of the pit and began digging. The prospect of finding something ancient was extremely exciting for me. The day was a scorcher but that didn’t slow down our digging.

As morning turned into afternoon, a number of my classmates were finding various fossil fragments, including one boy who found an amazing looking colorful gemstone. Unfortunately, I walked away empty-handed, but that didn’t make the experience any less exciting or memorable. Leaving, I vowed to return on my own, and soon.

Sadly, I never did. And, it wasn’t until I searched around online, trying to plan a trip down there with my wife and daughter, that I discovered that the pit was no more. Rice’s Fossil Pit had closed and, in fact, is now a 7-acre lake.

In the early 1940s, William Macon Rice and his wife Madeline moved to Hampton from Lynchburg, VA, purchasing 18-acres of land off of Harris Creek Rd. He began operation of what was originally a borrow pit on the land in 1948. In short order he began finding fossils in the soil, but being new to the region he assumed such things were commonplace. It wasn’t until a few months later that it became quite apparent that his land was special; at a depth of 18 feet, a crane uncovered an enormous skull. At 25 feet it was revealed that what had been discovered was an entire 60-foot-long bowhead whale.

Rice's Fossil Pit Brochure coverRice called the Smithsonian who sent a team of scientists down to the pit and over the course of several weeks they excavated the enormous 20-million-year-old fossil from the Miocene epoch. It turned out a new species of bowhead whale had been discovered.

The whale was taken to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and given the scientific name, Balaena ricei, in honor of the Rice Pit. On the heels of that discovery, a 25-million-year-old, 500-pound piece of star coral was uncovered. That particular type of coral is known to have grown in tropical waters at depths of around 130 feet, revealing just how different the Hampton Roads area was 20-million-years ago, when the ocean shore was somewhere between Richmond and Roanoke.

Scientists came from far and wide to explore the pit in hopes of discovering strange, new species. The Rice family was fascinated with the pit and its fossils, as well. Their young son Kenny was constantly exploring the pit and learning all about the fossils he was finding. Sadly, a tragic tractor accident at the pit claimed 14-year-old Kenny’s life. Several months later, on January 1, 1967, William and Madeline Rice opened the Kenneth E. Rice Memorial Museum and the pit to the public in honor of his son. Guests were charged a small admissions fee, but got to keep whatever they might find. The Memorial Museum grew to contain the largest collection of Miocene fossils in the world.

William Rice died of a heart attack in 1979. His wife, Madeline, ran the pit for a decade after his passing, but her failing health finally forced her to close. In 2007 the family sold the land to neighboring Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, which plans to expand its campus onto the land, leaving the pit as a lake to attract local wildlife.

In further exploring the circumstances surrounding the closing of Rice’s Fossil Pit, I discovered that Jan Rice, daughter-in-law of William Rice, gave a presentation at the Hampton History Museum in June of 2013, in conjunction with their exhibit The Fragile Balance. Thanks to YouTuber xgeckomanx who captured the presentation on video, I am able to share it here. (See part 1, below.)

I would love to hear any memories readers who have visited Rice’s Fossil Pit at some point in their lives might be willing to share. I regret not being able to share the experience of exploring the pit with my own daughter, but I will never forget that wonderful place that once was.

Sources, more info:

32 Comments

  1. Hampton Roads native, now living in NOVA too….this is so interesting! I want to say I’ve read something else about this pit (from you), but not recalling at the moment.
    Thanks for sharing. Fun stuff.

  2. My father grew up in Hampton in the 70s and has distinct memories of this place and taking school trips there. By the time I was born in the 90s it had long since filled up to become a lake. I fished there frequently in the late 90s through probably the mid 2000s.

    It enjoyed a second life as a local fishing hole for those in the know, with tons of very large bluegill and large mouth bass (though they were trickier to hook from the shore). Also plenty of lovely blackberry bushes grew around the parameter. You could sneak in right on Willow Oaks Blvd, there were ruins of a chain-link fence that had been trampled to the ground in several place. I have distinct childhood memories of my father and I hiding in the bushes with our fishing rods whenever the folks that owned the place came out to move soil or check for trespassers — they chased us off many times. I was always told it was because they were worried about any insurance liability of people drowning in the place, seeing as it was so deep (or, alternatively, that the owners wanted to keep it as a sort of monument to their son who died in the pit).

    Either way, a few years after Gloria Dei came to own it they started putting up new fencing making it much harder to access. They lined the entire pond with “NO FISHING” signs (one about every 15 feet) and started patrolling more regularly. It basically made the place nonviable to fish anymore, so we moved on.

    I haven’t even thought about it in a few years, though I drive by it all the time when I’m in town. Thanks for the post!

  3. What a great post! I went to the fossil pit when I was in 5th grade and remember coming home very dirty and with lots of dirty fossils and shells. I think I visited in 1983 or so… I was born in Hampton, grew up in Gloucester, and now live in Germany. I just visited a museum here where they had fossils and was reminded of that fossil pit.

    Thanks for writing such an informative post about it. You brought back lots of memories.

  4. So, those “youngsters” are me and my brother. We went to church with the Rices and yes, I still have fond memories of digging for fossils and even fishing once or twice in his catfish pond (our dad even took the picture). So they didn’t like people in the pit without their knowledge, fishing or not, for insurance and also because they lot thier son in the pit. Anyway, enough sad news, thank you for a view of us in the pamphlet!

    • Blake Patterson

      June 5, 2017 at 9:10 pm

      That’s great! You were famous!

      Sad, indeed, about Rice’s son. Thanks for sharing the memories.

  5. As a geology major at William and Mary I did my paleontology thesis on Rice’s Pit in 1975. Fond memories of digging in the fossils!

  6. I was online looking up the pit in the hopes of taking my son a rising 8th grader at a STEM school and thought how cool it would be for him to experience what I did as a child going to the pit for a field trip. I don’t remember if it was 6th or 7th grade that I went but I distinctly remember being excited to get to the grade that goes on the fossil pit field trip.

  7. Thank you so much for this article! I remember going to a “fossil pit” in Hampton in fifth grade–on a field trip from Lynchburg–but was never able to remember the name, or any real information, except that they had once found a whale there. This brought back a great memory. Sad to hear it is now closed; I had always hoped to return in my adult life.

  8. It was a field trip Norfolk Public Schools took every year. From 1971-1974, every year I took a bag lunch, a spoon and my dirtiest sneakers and oldest clothes. My favorite field trip. Boy did we have fun and got dirty! At 52 I can still remember that place and the fun I had!💕

  9. Visiting your website and enjoying your story as a result of the Facebook page “I Grew Up In Virginia Beach.” Someone there had recently posted a memory about the Skicoak Indian Museum, which I had forgotten in the 45 years intervening. But I always remembered Rice’s Fossil Pit, that my teacher at Alanton Elementary School took us on a field trip. I’ve posted back a link to your story and hope it generates additional memories & information for you. Thanks for the archives!

  10. I went to school in Suffolk.. I remember being so excited to finally be in the 5th grade. We didn’t want a trip Disney or DC…we wanted the fossil pits. Thanks for the memories

  11. I remember going to the pit in two field trips. Once when I attended Phillips Elementary and (the then called) Benjamin Syms Jr. High. Great memories. Kenneth was in one of my classes.

  12. I still have fossils from Rice’s Pit in my home today. Really enjoyed the digs from the time my family moved to Fox Hill, until the late 70’s. I drove past the entrance last month, the memories will last until our generation moves on.

  13. Went to school in Portsmouth . I still have some of the fossils I found on my 6th grade field trip. I’ve never forgotten that day back in 1975.

  14. My Mom and grand mother took me to the pit. My love for rocks and fossils was embedded deep within because of the trips there. We would spend time with the Rices’. It was a fun in the sun digging for treasure. Thanks for the memory!

  15. I loved the pit! Lived in Suffolk and it was the 6th field trip. It made me decide that I wanted very badly to be an archeologist from that day on. Unfortunately my dream got swept under the rug. It was a life changer for me!
    Ramona Keays

  16. I remember going here on a field trip when I was in the 4th grade. So that would have been 76-77. All I remember finding were a bunch of shells.

  17. Oh wow! So I had this frequent memory of being very young but my babysitter taking her granddaughter and I on a hike through the woods (she lived right off of Harris Creek), and coming through a clearing and seeing this HUGE hole. I’m sure it was a lot bigger in my tiny mind but I was amazed by it! I told my mom and my grandma but they seemed to just brush it off, so for a long time I thought I just dreamt it.
    Thank you for confirming I’m not crazy! This place was real!

  18. Michael Kallberg

    November 19, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    Having arrived into my 5th decade, I find myself becoming more and more nostalgic about the 60’s and 70’s, and your story fits right in with that! I was a student at Phillips Elementary right down the street when having made this field trip. I,too, was in awe of the massive, deep hole in the ground and couldn’t wait to “dig in “! If memory serves, I went twice with school and once as a young adult with my Dad ( we only made it to the museum that day). I feel that the experience had a strong effect on how I see the world and life today! I didn’t become an archeologist or paleontologist, but I have worked in construction for 30 years which has given me many opportunities to make discoveries of both modern historic and prehistoric finds! Simply said, Rice’s Fossil Pit is in some part why I Love “digging in the dirt”! Thank you very much for your story!

  19. Went to Rice’s all of the time , lived growing up in Fix Hill and all of the find memories of the pit. Found many fossils there , including a buffalo tooth. Unfortunately everything has an expiration date. But memories live for ever.

  20. Went to Rice’s all of the time , loved growing up in Fox Hill and all of the find memories of the pit. Found many fossils there , including a buffalo tooth. Unfortunately everything has an expiration date. But memories live for ever.

  21. Melanie Rapp Beale

    November 19, 2017 at 5:25 pm

    I grew up in Hampton and attended Sinclair and William Mason Cooper Elementary Schools. I remember taking a field trip to the fossil pit.

    We had a great time. I don’t recall that we found any fossils.

    Thank you for the memories. I enjoyed reading the history behind it.

  22. Just wanted to point out that it’s Jane Rice, not Jan Rice.

  23. Lived nearby growing up (Apollo Drive) and went here once on a school field trip and once with the boy scouts. I hate to admit that we even jumped the fence a few times for a little unofficial exploration.
    One of those was when Mr. Rice was still alive and I remember him being extremely enthusiastic about his fossil pit. My discovery of the day was the best of the students, but I have no idea or memory of what it was or what happened to it, but he made a pretty big deal over it.
    The second time I went, Mrs. Rice gave the tour and told us about the death of her son. She told us that a tractor rolled over him and Mr. Rice ran over and lifted the tractor off of the boy, but it was too late. She claimed that her husband had superhuman strength when he lifted the tractor.

  24. Lived on Harris creek road growing up and went there several times.

  25. I, too, share those memories of Rice’s Fossil pit.

  26. I went to Rice’s Fossil pit as part of a class field trip when I was in elementary school. I didn’t find anything, but a girl in my class found a wooden spoon that was thought to go back to either the 18th or 19th century.

  27. I remember going there as a kid and digging around and finding shells. I had them for a long time but somewhere in moves they got lost. I remember what they looked like though. I can also close my eyes and remember what the pit looked like too. I wish it was still here for all the kids today (and us older ones) to enjoy.

  28. Like so many others, I went on a school field trip to Rice’s when I was in elementary school in Norfolk or Virginia Beach. I guess it was some time in the mid-sixties. Anyway, I came away with a jawbone from some prehistoric beast.
    As I am now in my sixties, that experience seems like ancient history to me now. For all the years I had no idea where it was located. As a kid it seemed so far away. You can imagine my surprise to read, in your article, that I have lived a mile away from where it was located for the thirty years I have lived in Hampton. Thank you for dredging up those far ago memories.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*