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New OPB Oregon Experience Documentary Profiles Frontier Preacher and Pioneer Geologist Thomas Condon


“Thomas Condon: Of Faith and Fossils” airs February 22 on OPB TV and online at watch.opb.org

This month, OPB will premiere a new Oregon Experience documentary that explores the life and legacy of Thomas Condon. Embracing both religion and science, he was the first to recognize the scientific significance of the John Day Fossil Beds, becoming a nationally-known scientist and educator. Condon would devote his life to teaching others about Oregon’s ancient past.  

The half-hour documentary “Thomas Condon: Of Faith and Fossils” airs February 22 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and online at watch.opb.org at the same time.  

Born in Ireland in 1822, Thomas Condon immigrated with his family to New York. After graduating from a Congregationalist seminary in 1852, he and his wife Cornelia Holt, traveled to Oregon and spent 10 years in the Willamette Valley on various missionary assignments.  

In 1862, Condon was transferred to The Dalles, where he settled and found a small but eager congregation that grew and thrived. He also always loved geology. He subscribed to scientific journals and collected rocks and fossils wherever he lived. Townspeople, teamsters, and soldiers stationed at Fort Dalles knew of his great knowledge of geology and began bringing him fossils to examine and identify.  

By 1865, Condon was accompanying the soldiers on trips into Oregon’s interior and was the first to identify the scientific significance of the area now known as the John Day Fossil Beds– where nearly 50 million years of time are preserved. Condon’s early correspondence with East coast paleontologists helped ignite worldwide interest in the area. Over the years, his reputation as a learned scientist grew, and educating the public about new ideas and discoveries was of paramount importance to him.  

In 1872, the state legislature tapped him to become Oregon’s first state geologist. In 1876, he was appointed one of the first three original professors at the new University of Oregon and would use his large collection of fossils as teaching tools for nearly 30 years.    

He would become one of the most beloved and sought-after public speakers of his time and lectured extensively across the state about Oregon geology and the theory of evolution.  

Today, Condon’s original fossil collection lives at the University of Oregon, and new discoveries continue to be made at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument – a wonderland he discovered and revealed to the world and where the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center welcomes all who visit.  

This new Oregon Experience documentary features historical photos, images and interviews with:  

  • Edward Davis, curator of fossil collections, University of Oregon Museum of Natural & Cultural History
  • Joshua Samuels, chief of paleontology and museum curator, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
  • Ellen Morris Bishop, geologist and author
  • Karl Vercouteren, retired pastor, United Church of Christ Congregational, The Dalles
  • Sandy Bisset, local historian and board president, Original Wasco County Courthouse  

“Thomas Condon: Of Faith and Fossils” is written and produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Bruce Barrow. It airs Monday, February 22 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and will be available to watch online at http://watch.opb.org/ at the same time. For more information, visit Oregon Experience online.

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