The Future of Dinosaurs is Now
Dinosaurs have been extinct for millennia, but in Connecticut they refuse to die. They are more popular than ever and not just in books, films and the psyches of children. The creatures are with us for science, art, education, entertainment and just plain kitsch. You can’t travel far in this small state without running into a likeness or reference to these colossal reptiles. Evidence that they once roamed here is all around us and lives in our imaginations. The future of dinosaurs is here and now. Jurassic adventures are near at hand and not hard to find.
Connecticut’s epicenter of giant lizard mania is Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill where a dizzying crosshatch of about 500 Jurassic Period (200 million years ago) three-toed tracks, some over 16 inches long, known as Eubrontes giganteus are protected under a geodesic dome. At least another 1,500 prints are still buried on the grounds. These large footprints may have been left in soft mud by carnivorous, three-toed Dilophosaurus who walked on two hind legs and measured about twenty feet long.
Scientists were called in 1966 after bulldozer operator Edward McCarthy, doing site work for a Highway Department laboratory, got off his machine to examine something unusual uncovered by his blade. Experts were amazed, believing that no one had ever seen such extensive tracks. The prints have since been recognized as a National Natural Landmark and the official state fossil. Preserved and maintained through the dedicated work of volunteers and state staff, the museum now includes a life sized model of Dilophosaurus and background murals of the subtropical Connecticut they lived in.
Seeing the brownish colored prints under the focused lights of the dome is transformative. It takes me out of the moment and transports me to a distant place where my sense of wonder wanders. Nothing seems impossible. Life is enlarged. Every once in a while I return to rejuvenate the child inside.
The grounds around the trackway dome have been thoughtfully planted with an arboretum of trees and shrubs related to dinosaur times. Adjacent trails are remarkably quiet considering the giant creatures that once thundered around under an ever warm sun in a time beyond comprehension. Today, the loudest sounds are the shouts and laughter of children as they make plaster casts of dinosaur prints. I still have one of the ten-pound ivory colored objects that my kids made about twenty years ago. I can’t bear to throw it out, but I have no idea what to do with it. I’ve heard some people have turned them into bird baths.
Though the Rocky Hill site beats all others in extent, dinosaur prints and fossilized bones have been found in Connecticut Valley sandstones for hundreds of years, especially by quarrymen. In fact, the world’s first dinosaur prints were found in about 1802 by teenager Pliny Moody while plowing a field on his family farm in Hadley, Massachusetts. About fifty miles north of Rocky Hill, the find roughly echoes McCarthy’s discovery with a bulldozer over a century-and-a-half later. Some thought the tracks Moody found were made by a giant bird, perhaps Noah’s raven. A piece was first was made into a doorstep, but these and many other fossils are now safely at Amherst College.
Portland, Connecticut’s brownstone quarries were once the largest in the world and supplied building stone to New York, Boston and as far as San Francisco. Though evidence of dinosaurs have been found in Manchester, East Windsor and other Connecticut towns, the fossils found among the strata of the Portland quarries are legend. Some are displayed at the Portland Public Library, in Middletown at Wesleyan University’s Exley Science Center, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most unusual display of dinosaur footprints is just west of the university in Indian Hill Cemetery where amateur fossil hunter Dr. Joseph Barrett has a gravestone with several dinosaur footprints on the back side. “The Testimony of the Rocks,” the stone reads. In the tradition of serendipitous dinosaur discoveries, Barrett once found prints on the underside of a Middletown paving slab that was being replaced in the 1850s after about sixty years of service. It proved that giant footmarks were being uncovered well before Moody’s discovery.
Whenever I look at these prints in places like the hushed recesses of Amherst College’s Pratt Museum or the Exley Science Center I’m filled with a sense of bizarre amazement. Whether displayed for art or for science, they evidence long ago lives that valued their prints even less than we prize our own left in some muddy puddle on the street.
Like a cathedral, Yale’s Peabody Museum in New Haven, is a pilgrimage site for scientists, students and kids of all ages who enter through its nine story tower of brick and sandstone. The nave of this paleontology holy site is the Great Hall where I momentarily held my breath at the sight of a seventy-foot long Brontosaurus skeleton and a twenty-foot long Stegosaurus whose back is lined with pointed bony plates. After a moment stunned by the sheer size of these extinct animals, I began to notice the fossilized remains of many other creatures from the distant past, some so fantastic that they seemed the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
The Great Hall is a grand space where the sound of echoing footsteps and hushed, awed voices are punctuated by the joyful exclamations of children pointing at the bony, silent monsters. It’s hard not to wonder what these Brobdingnagian creatures looked like bulked out in skin and flesh. But The Age of Reptiles mural painted by Rudolph Zallinger, a colorful 110-foot frieze along one wall, teases the imagination with 300 million years of evolution that depicts the giant creatures roaming a world of lush plants and smoking volcanoes. It’s mind bending to think that these giants once lived in the same space we currently inhabit, a world of now unrecognizable landforms and climate.
Mounted on an angled chunk of rough cut stone outside the museum, a charging Torosaurus statue with its menacing horns and open mouth is forever ready to leap across Whitney Avenue. I’m reminded that the Peabody is not only a home to fossils, but a temple to generations of hard charging Yale scientists who went to Herculean efforts to recover fossils from near and far and did much of the heavy intellectual lifting to explain the evolution of dinosaurs. Without them, the fossils and much of our landscape would remain a puzzle. It’s science that has brought Connecticut’s dinosaurs to life. Occasionally a bird lands on the fearsome sculpture and I’m reminded that Yale discoveries in living memory have connected birds to dinosaur ancestors. They are not exactly Noah’s raven, but sometimes old ideas circle back in strange ways.
Art, Commerce and Kitsch
Connecticut’s dinosaurs are not all in the service of paleontology and knowledge. Alexander Calder’s fifty-foot high, bright red abstract “Stegosaurus” sculpture of steel on Burr Mall between Hartford City Hall and the Wadsworth Atheneum elevates dinosaurs to the highest level of abstract art. Meanwhile, a seventy-two by thirty-six-foot Deinonychus painting designed by artist Bayla Arietta adorns a Magellan Midstream Partners fuel tank near New Haven harbor where it can be seen by thousands driving on I-95 every day. Based on a detail of Zallinger’s mural at the Peabody, the huge painting is a public spirited commercial advertisement with the legend: “Yale Peabody Museum . . . A New Haven Treasure.”
Sometimes dinosaurs are all in fun, a startling kind of kitsch in unexpected places. Such is the case with the hillside dinosaurs at the now extinct Prehistoric Golf, a mini golf course along State Route 66 in Portland. I played there several times among the huge cartoonish dinosaur sculptures to the delight of my kids when they were young. Unfortunately, what was once “prehistoric” is now history, more deteriorated every time I pass.
Of course, dinosaurs are not just for institutions and businesses. On Scarborough Street in Hartford, a brightly colored Tyrannosaurus in a private yard leers over an iron fence in front of a large house. I smile every time I pass.
Large natural features sometimes evoke dinosaur images. Looming in the midst of the woods on the blue-blazed Narragansett Trail near the Rhode Island line is a massive gray rock formation with shallow caves called Dinosaur Caves and Cliffs, so named, according to a web post by trail enthusiast David R. Brierley, because “the wild and rocky terrain there seems appropriate for prehistoric monsters.” Another enormous ledge just a little over the border is called Dinosaur Rock because of its sheer size. When it comes to dinosaurs, size matters and anything large and untamed can get the imagination rolling.
The best places to conjure dinosaurs are those meant to stir the fantasies and curiosity of young people. I not only delight in seeing children wide-eyed and happily dazzled, but enjoy feeling my own childhood come rushing back. I know few adults who didn’t have a period of passionate dinosaur fascination as children. It’s hard not to fall back through the years when you hear the roar of Dilophosaurus at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford, a creature that may be responsible for the footprints at the state park in Rocky Hill.
Among my favorite child friendly haunts is The Dinosaur Place on State Route 85 in Montville where over forty life-sized and colorful dinosaurs statues are found in the rocky woods along a beautiful mile-and-a-half trail looping around a lake. Although it feels a little odd to see these creatures in today’s oak forest with lots of understory laurel, it felt even stranger to be unaccompanied by a child. Every other adult had a least one, as if the kids were good will ambassadors inspiring a fanciful outlook in older visitors. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and some children were even climbing the creatures, which is probably against the rules. Despite the unlikely habitat, something about seeing these large models outdoors in a natural setting and action poses caused me to look at them differently. Did I expect movement or to hear them roar and bellow? How could I be disappointed at a tall and long Brachiosaurus at the water’s edge, a Tyrannosaurus bearing its teeth near the picnic grove, or adult creatures guarding their eggs and young beneath the trees? Detailed placards did an excellent job explaining the lives and habitats of the extinct animals, but most went unread. Families were here less for an education than for fun.
For an over-the-top whimsical dinosaur fantasy it’s hard to beat Bristol’s Lake Compounce’s Dino Expedition during the evenings of their Holiday Lights season when the massive animatronic creatures are covered in a galaxy of colored, twinkling bulbs. It’s a hokey, prehistoric alcove in America’s oldest theme park where the venerable wooden rollercoaster and carousel, the water park and contemporary thrill rides get most of the attention. The dinosaurs move menacingly in the dark, they screech and growl and look wonderfully ridiculous with lights. One wears a Santa cap. Children adore it, sometimes jumping back with a start, other times giggling with delight at Pterodactyls, a Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and other massive reptiles. The dubious Christmas lights provide a strange and wonderful contrast with the darkness that cloaks these animals made of foam, latex and silicone with a scintilla of imaginative realism. My wife Mary and I felt like children in their presence. No one knows for sure how dinosaurs celebrated Christmas, but in my more gullible moments I assume this display illustrates the best in scientific supposition.
Dinosaurs on the Mind
At once a serious scientific pursuit and the fabulous daydreams of children, dinosaurs are universally worthy of contemplation. They stretch our sense of time and challenge our notions of life’s variety and possibilities. Inhabiting the same space as we do today, but in a very different environment, dinosaurs enable us to think of change on a grand scale and dampen our hubris. They liberate our imaginations to wander. Knowing we walk where dinosaurs once shook the earth, reminds us that there are some things so grand as to be refreshingly beyond our Lilliputian speculations.