Dusting Off America’s First Dinosaur

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None of Hawkins’s hadrosaur clones still exists, although the Smithsonian’s did manage quite a bit of traveling before its demise. Until 1881 it remained on display in the lower main hall of the Castle. Then, as more and better fossil specimens began to accumulate, it was relegated to the Arts and Industries Building. The skeleton was apparently exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and was subsequently donated to that city’s newly organized Field Museum of Natural History, where it remained until the museum moved to new quarters a decade later. By then something of an anachronism, the Hadrosaurus does not seem to have survived this final transfer.

At Princeton, too, Hawkins’s dinosaur felt the pinch of competition from more recent finds. When limitations of space finally decreed its removal, a series of contrived “accidents” made short work of the specimen. The Edinburgh hadrosaur met a more gallant end. During the First World War, it was dismounted and its ironwork was contributed to the scrap drive; the plaster cast itself was finally discarded in 1928.

By this time the original skeleton alone remained on display, at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Its defects were by now readily apparent, and it, too, was soon dismantled and packed away in a back room, where it remained for half a century. Although time had claimed Hawkins’s hadrosaurs, they had helped mold the public image of dinosaurs for more than a generation.

Over the last two decades our perceptions of dinosaurs have undergone dramatic changes. Today’s dinosaur is seen as vigorous, alert, and adaptable—and possibly warm-blooded as well. No longer a synonym for failure, the dinosaur is now being touted as an evolutionary success story. Nowhere is this new attitude more evident than in our view of the hadrosaurs. Freed of the exclusively semiaquatic existence Leidy once imagined, they are now seen as a widespread group, roaming plains and lowland forests as well, possibly in large herds with intricate social structures. The recent discovery of hadrosaur nests and young has fueled much speculation on the nature of dinosaurian behavior, especially in respect to the rearing of young.

Hadrosaurs, we now know, came in a variety of shapes and sizes, many of which sported bizarre-looking crests. Until recently it had not been possible to determine Hadrosaurus foulkii’s place within this large and diverse family, but recent studies of the original skeleton by the paleontologist Jack Horner have equated Hadrosaurus with the Western genus Kritosaurus and provide the first really credible guide to this historic dinosaur’s lifetime appearance.

And now America’s first dinosaur is once again on public display. In January 1986 the Academy of Natural Sciences unveiled a completely new Dinosaur Hall, one of the finest in the country. Dominating the entrance to the hall is a cast of the original partial Hadrosaurus skeleton, stripped of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s imaginative additions and displayed within a silhouette of the whole animal. Hawkins’s old plaster skull has been resurrected as well. Literally rescued from the trash bin not long ago, the old skull adorns a collateral exhibit on how Victorians perceived dinosaurs.

A team of Boss Tweed’s laborers smashed the dinosaurs with sledgehammers.

In Haddonfield, at the end of Maple Avenue, just off Grove Street, a bronze-and-stone monument now stands in a tiny park, marking the site of the original discovery. After decades of obscurity America’s first dinosaur has resumed its rightful place as one of the treasures of paleontology.