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Tour participants listen to a lecture Saturday at the Wetumpka Civic Center before embarking on the annual tour of the Wetumpka impact crater. PHOTO COURTESY OF Mickey Welsh, Montgomery Advertiser
WETUMPKA -- It's not every day that someone gets to stand in the area where a meteor once touched down on Earth, but about 100 people got that chance during the annual Crater Tour on Saturday.
Sponsored by the Wetumpka Impact Crater Commission, the Crater Tour is held each year to allow attendees to explore a 5-mile-wide impact crater that was blasted into the bedrock of what is now Elmore County.
Chairwoman Marilee Tankersly said the tour originally was sponsored by the Trail Legends Association as a way to get people out and walking. When the Crater Commission took over in 2002, the tour became a way for people to learn more about the spot and get a chance to see it for themselves.
The tour included areas such as Bald Knob, the highest point on the crater rim, and a chance to see some limestone cliffs off Harrogate Springs Road. There also was a chance to see the rim up close behind the CVS Pharmacy and First Community Bank off Wilson Street.
Tankersly said the tour, which draws an average of about 100 people each year, usually attracts older residents who have lived in the area and never seen the crater. She said they have come back "raving about it."
"They have driven past it their whole life and never knew what it was," Tankersly said. "Some would say that they have been to places like Italy and seen things that were thousands of years old. But here you could put your hand on something that was millions of years old."
The impact site, which is believed to have been created by a blast about 85 million years ago, was first discovered in 1891 when State Geologist Eugene Allen Smith noted the unusual nature of the Wetumpka area.
It wasn't until 1998 that David T. King Jr., a professor of geology at Auburn University, headed a research team that found the core contained shocked quartz, a material that can only be formed by pressures exerted during an explosion such as a large meteor impact.
The research team published all of its findings, and in 2002, the site was established as an internationally recognized impact crater.
King returns to the area during the yearly tour to give a lecture about the site, visiting the Wetumpka Civic Center most recently Thursday. Saturday's attendees were treated to a similar presentation from graduate students before embarking on the tour.
Tankersly said the tour is held only once a year because it is a volunteer effort and resources are limited. She said the tour takes place early in the year because the weather is cooperative and the leaves are off the trees.
"You go out there in June and you can't see a thing," Tankersly said.
Chad Ellington, an astronomy professor at Auburn Montgomery, said he picked up a calendar of events for the area and became intrigued by the tour.
"Being an astronomy nerd, I'm into these kinds of things," Ellington said.
The professor conducted an impromptu class of his own when he showed other attendees pieces of meteors and meteorites he had obtained from places such as Russia and Africa.
Donna Spradley attended the event out of curiosity about her own home in Marbury.
"I have huge rocks in my yard that I could swear are from the sea," Spradley said.
She said that sparked her interest in the tour. She had known about the crater and wondered what it looked like. After the tour, she was reciting some of the facts she had just learned.
"I enjoyed it," Spradley said. "I like to know about stuff like this."
She said she would be interested in making a return trip to the site in the future.
"I feel you could get a lot more out of it if you come again," Spradley said.
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