When Dinosaurs Were New

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I spent Sunday morning among the dinosaurs of Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The skeletons of the prehistoric creatures stood nearly shoulder to shoulder—the Tyrannosaurus appeared to snarl at a nearby Triceratops, and an Allosaurus stood dangerously close to the business-end of a Stegosaurus—and the numerous reconstructions of such dinosaurs are so common that it is easy to take them for granted. A century and a half ago, when dinosaurs were still new, the fact that an entire dinosaur could be reconstructed at all was a fantastic thing.

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was one of the greatest paleo-artists of all time. It does not matter that we now restore dinosaurs very differently from the way he did. At the time Hawkins was carrying out his work—including the creation of the famous Crystal Palace dinosaurs—paleontologists knew dinosaurs only from fragments, and there were no awesome, complete skeletons on display.

On January 27th, 1869, Hawkins delivered a lecture to the American Institute in New York about his work. He began by presenting his audience with the great skeletal framework of a dinosaur. "he audience was taken completely by surprise by the unveiling of the restored skeleton of a huge reptile called the 'Hadrosaurus'" a reporter for the New York Evening Post later wrote, especially since the 25-foot-long skeleton of the "restored monster" had been "skillfully concealed behind curtains, which, covered with diagrams, left no suspicion of anything behind them."

This was not the first public appearance for Hadrosaurus. Hakwins had initially created a cast of the reconstructed skeleton for Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences a few months before on the basis of an incomplete skeleton found in Haddonfield, New Jersey. His Hadrosaurus was the first complete dinosaur skeleton to be displayed anywhere. Giant sloths, mastodons and other prehistoric mammals had been seen before, but Hawkins—working with naturalist Joseph Leidy—was the first to actually reconstruct an entire dinosaur skeleton. (In 2009, the Academy ran a special exhibition on Hadrosaurus, displaying the original plaster skull from Hawkins' reconstruction.)

But, as magnificent as it was, the Hadrosaurus skeleton was just a teaser of bigger things to come. Hawkins explained to his American Institute audience that he was applying his talents to creating a new vision of prehistoric life in North America for a grand museum in New York's Central Park. The "Paleozoic Museum" would combine fossils with life-size restorations of Hadrosaurus and other prehistoric creatures, including plesiosaurs and the predatory dinosaur "Laelaps" (now known as Dryptosaurus), which the reporter described as, "very comfortable to look at in a defunct state, but very inconvenient to have about if clothed in flesh and blood."

Sadly, Central Park's great Paleozoic Museum was never constructed. Even though Hawkins had created several of the planned models in a New York studio by 1871, these were all smashed by cronies of the infamous politician William Marcy Tweed. Exactly why Tweed ordered the destruction of Hawkins' work is difficult to ascertain. Tweed claimed that the project was a waste of money, but Hawkins had also publicly criticized the corrupt city boss. Whatever the reason, Hawkins' creatures met a violent end and the project was scrapped.

One hundred and forty years later, there are many fine museums filled with dinosaur skeletons, but the death of the Paleozoic Museum remains a tragedy. Not only would the museum have introduced New Yorkers to the unique prehistoric history of North America, but had it survived to this day, the museum would have acted as a time capsule from the early days of American paleontology. All we have left are sketches of a prehistoric world that will never be brought to life.

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