salamanders

Recently my friend Christopher J. Liszt mailed me a peculiar article dated July 27, 1922, from a newspaper called The Seattle Daily Perspicacitor, a journal I confess I’ve never heard of. Liszt thought I might enjoy reading it, since I have an interest in the history and folklore of the Olympic Peninsula. The essay, reprinted here, recounts an incident during the O’Neil expedition, one of the first efforts to explore this mountainous wilderness in Washington state.


A RARE FIND

Heinrich Zampf’s Curious Discovery in the Olympics

There are secrets hidden in the Olympic Peninsula that no man (or woman) has ever known—nor perhaps shall ever know. It is a forbidding landscape that holds these secrets tightly, defending them with a deluge of fourteen feet of rainfall per year. Anyone who dares probe its interior must deal with tangles of underbrush, wild creatures such as bear and cougar, vast glaciers, and winter floods that smash out of their riverbeds like runaway locomotives, erasing all previous traces of human presence. Avalanches sometimes roar down the valleys, sweeping away whole forests in a fury of white. Meanwhile, house-sized boulders tumble from peaks upon unsuspecting travelers. There are many corners of this peninsula no human has ever tread upon, and the land seems intent on keeping it this way.

One attempt to pry loose its secrets occurred during Lieutenant Joseph O’Neill’s 1885  expedition into the interior of the peninsula. Among this party of adventurers was a certain Heinrich R. Zampf, a German-born naturalist who had emigrated to the American west in order to search for new species of flora and fauna, styling himself as a Teutonic Darwin. He was a tidy and somewhat timid gentleman, and he often found himself an outcast in the company of O’Neil’s scruffy and unwashed mountain-men.

About a week into the trip, somewhere in the sodden rainforests of the Quinault valley, Zampf made a discovery. At the base on an ancient red cedar he spotted an enormous salamander. “The beast measured twenty inches from head to tail,” he reported in his journal. With the help of two other men, he succeeded in netting the creature, which put up quite a fight. Upon close scrutiny, it proved to be a hitherto unknown species.

It must have been quite a sight, for Zampf described it thus: “the amphibian is like none I have ever seen, cloaked in the most brilliant colors: deep crimson, saffron yellow, cerulean blue, and the indigo of emperor’s robes.” He named his discovery Dicamptodon horribilis. The name was no doubt inspired by the sounds it made, for Zampf noted in his journal that “the beast emitted the most disconcerting screams, akin to those of a damsel being attacked by a large spider.” The naturalist kept the shrieking creature in a canvas satchel, which he intended to transport back to the Burke Museum in Seattle.

The other members of expedition, however, quickly wearied of the creature’s incessant and unnerving screams. “Lieut. O’Neil has asked me if it is absolutely necessary to return a live specimen to the museum,” Zampf wrote. “But I told him in no uncertain terms that this animal was more valuable to science alive than dead.”

zampf

 

Several days passed. The soldiers under O’Neil’s command became more adamant in their requests to “slay the cursed thing” for its cries in the dark prevented them from getting a full night’s rest. Zampf remained defiant. “While I am beginning to see the men’s perspective,” he wrote, “my duty to natural history requires that I bring this specimen back to civilization so that its biology, anatomy, and habits may be more clearly understood in the illuminating light of scientific inquiry. I fear the lieutenant’s men, nearly all of them uncouth and poorly educated, do not grasp the importance of this discovery to the field of herpetology.”

expedition

 

The next day, the men were granted a day of rest and a ration of whiskey. Zampf scampered into the hills in search of butterflies. Returning to camp later that afternoon, he found the explorers huddled around a campfire with conspiring grins on their faces. On a spit over the fire were the remains of the salamander, which they had cooked for lunch. Most of the creature was in the men’s bellies. “I looked upon them in horror,” wrote Zampf. “And after delivering a stern lecture upon the serious implications of their behavior, I beseeched the Lieut. for a modicum of disciplinary action. But his response was tepid: a mere week’s prohibition of whiskey for the men. I am disconsolate. Science has lost a precious discovery.”

Zampf, attempting to make the best of things, tasted what was left of Dicamptodon, and observed that it was “reminiscent of roasted chicken.” He then scooped up what bones he could find and salvaged several pieces of burnt skin. The skeleton he brought back still resides in the Burke Museum’s collection. As for the rainbow-colored salamander, another specimen of Dicoamptodon horribilis has never been sighted.