Dusting Off America’s First Dinosaur

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The bones were stored in the academy’s establishment on the corner of Broad and George (later Sansom) streets in Philadelphia, where they remained throughout the Civil War. At first there was no attempt to reconstruct the skeleton, although such an undertaking was certainly possible, except perhaps for the head. Then, in the summer of 1868, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins arrived in Philadelphia. It was Hawkins who, under Owen’s supervision, had built the Crystal Palace dinosaurs.

The London-born Hawkins was an accomplished painter and sculptor with a good working knowledge of anatomy. When the Crystal Palace had been moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham in 1852, Albert, the prince consort, had suggested that the rebuilt structure contain a display of life-size “antediluvian monsters.” This was the genesis of Hawkins’s great work. Perhaps his most unusual triumph had followed on December 31, 1853, when he threw a New Year’s Eve dinner for Owen and twenty other scientists inside one of his nearly completed iguanodons.

Now, in 1868, at sixty-one Hawkins had come to America and, at the behest of Andrew Green, administrator of the Board of Commissioners of New York’s Central Park, was about to undertake a similar project for a “Paleozoic Museum.” Since the new museum was to have a distinctly American flavor, Hawkins spent the next several months traveling about, studying appropriate fossils. Most of his time was spent in Philadelphia.

In addition to Hadrosaurus, the Academy of Natural Sciences had recently acquired another dinosaur from New Jersey. This was the great predator Laelaps (subsequently renamed Dryptosaurus), first described in 1866 by Edward Drinker Cope, one of Leidy’s students. There was no question that this dinosaur was completely bipedal. Cope had been astonished by the ridiculously small forelimbs of Laelaps, a characteristic of the later carnivorous dinosaurs that still puzzles scientists today. Since these would apparently be quite useless in combat, Cope imagined Laelaps leaping upon its victims in great bounds and ripping them apart with the awesome talons of its hind feet.

Hawkins spent the autumn months making casts of the skeletons of both Hadrosaurus and Laelaps and sculpting the missing bones in plaster. The lack of a skull for Hadrosaurus was awkward, but Hawkins found an ingenious solution. Since the teeth of both Hadrosaurus and Iguanodon most closely resembled those of a living iguana, Hawkins simply enlarged the skull of one of these lizards. Although this later proved completely inaccurate, Hawkins’s approach at least was based—however remotely—on the available scientific data. The same unfortunately cannot be said of the oversize human collarbone Hawkins used. Nevertheless, for all its faults, Hawkins’s creation was the first of its kind in the world.

Hawkins returned to New York in December. While he worked on the restorations, foundations were laid in the southwest corner of Central Park for the new Paleozoic Museum, an iron-framed glass building to be reminiscent of the Crystal Palace. Two giant fleshed-out hadrosaurs slowly began to take shape in Hawkins’s studio. In the finished museum they would be joined by several Laelaps, plus Elasmosaurus and Mosasaurus, two marine contemporaries of the dinosaurs, as well as mastodons and other spectacular extinct mammals. But the Paleozoic Museum was about to encounter machine politics.

For years William Marcy Tweed and his political henchmen had controlled New York City’s Democratic-party organization, the courts, and the city comptroller’s office. Other cronies were installed in both City Hall and Albany. Since 1866 they had assaulted the city treasury with a systematic precision that defies description. Now the Tweed Ring cast its covetous eyes on Central Park, a promising source for patronage. In 1870 the state legislature approved a new city charter, subordinating the Central Park Board of Commissioners to the more politically tractable Department of Public Parks. Andrew Green was neatly sidelined, as the Tweed henchman Peter (“Brains”) Sweeny took control. Sweeny soon halted work on the museum and ordered the foundations filled in. The museum’s estimated total cost of three hundred thousand dollars was deemed “too great a sum to expend upon a building devoted wholly to paleontology—a science which, however interesting, is yet so imperfectly known as not to justify so great a public expense for illustrating it.” Coming from other lips, this would have been a sober and fair enough assessment; next to the vast sums being swallowed up annually in patronage and graft, it was merely ludicrous.