This article was originally published in the July 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Here is a story about a real dragon and its arrival in Trenton.
It is a hot summer in 1858 and Philadelphia-based lawyer and geologist William Parker Foulke is escaping the city heat in Haddonfield, New Jersey. It’s a rural town about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia.
Instead of pursuing rest and relaxation, Foulke gets curious about a tale he’s heard about a neighboring farmer, John Hopkins, who uses marl: a clay and calcium carbonate deposit that handily serves as fertilizer.
About 20 years earlier Hopkins and his workmen were digging up the marl when they found something else: dark bones larger than any New Jersey farm or wild animal. It’s the stuff of speculation and mystery.
Foulke wants to know more — or even see a specimen — and heads out to visit Hopkins. While the farmer is willing to talk to the city lawyer, he has nothing to show, just a recollection of where the bones were found.
The lawyer wants to know more, applies his trade, and interrogates the farmer. He’s so persuasive that Hopkins offers to take him to the site as well as organize a digging party.
When they arrive at the site they find a terrain changed by two decades of plant growth and erosion. Uncertain about the exact location, the team sets to work using trail and effort.
Two days later the crew hits pay dirt: a partial skeleton — ribs, hip, legs, and vertebrae. The head is missing, but nine scattered teeth are retrieved.
Foulke, knowledgeable about current science, nurses a hunch about the find, but he wants expertise and contacts fellow Philadelphia-based Academy of Natural Sciences member Joseph Leidy — the era’s foremost vertebrate paleontologist (the study of prehistoric life with a backbone).
Leidy arrives, inspects the bones, and affirms the unimaginable — the evidence of something big and once relegated to the world of myths and fairy tales: the remains of an 80-million-year-old gigantic reptile — part of a group of animals that in 1841 had been christened Dinosauria (Latin for fearfully great or terrible lizard).
It is the scientific evidence that ends all prior theories of earthly existence and causes life to stand raw and mysterious before the two scientists in southern New Jersey.
No wonder the Academy called it “The dinosaur that changed the world.”
Now that evidence — the historic skeleton of Hadrosaurus foulkii (Latin for Foulke’s bulky lizard) — is the subject of new installation in the “Written in the Rocks: Fossil Tales of New Jersey” exhibition in the New Jersey State Museum’s Natural History Hall.
It’s a homecoming of sorts for the new 25-feet long and 10-feet high cast. For decades the NJSM had a large Hadrosaurus skeleton on view before museum renovations, and several years ago it featured a temporary installation of the Hadrosaurus from the Academy of Natural History.
While dinosaurs are common part of academic and popular culture, it’s hard to remember that in the 1800s dinosaurs were still unknown.
Historians tell about people finding bones and thinking they were related to reptiles, but they just didn’t think they were that important.
But that changed when Foulke and Leidy announced the discovery of the first known dinosaur skeleton in the world.
And while Leidy was able to claim the New Jersey bones for the Academy because the New Jersey State Museum was not yet in existence, the Hadrosaurus foulkii bones have been New Jersey’s oldest and most exotic export.
The state has since symbolically asserted its claim to the fossil in 1991 when the state legislature declared it New Jersey’s official state dinosaur. Five other states and the District of Columbia also have official dinosaurs.
Looking at the new Hadrosaurus and images of the old manner of displaying on the signage, visitors will realize that the practice of displaying and depicting dinosaurs has been a work in progress.
The incorrect posture was in part the product of the artistic imagination of British artist Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894). That artist worked with Leidy to create that first skeleton mount, the only display of its kind in the world for 15 years.
Hawkins — one of the original paleo-artists — also created concrete sculptures of squat or lumpy dinosaurs, based on speculation, for the popular 1855 Crystal Palace paleontology exhibition in London. He attempted to launch a similar — yet ill-fated — dinosaur exhibition in 1870 in New York City’s Central Park. That exhibition clashed with a plan by New York City political force Boss Tweed, and statues were destroyed and buried in the park.
Later Hawkins’ work was surpassed by American illustrator Charles R. Knight who illustrated the creatures more accurately and was commissioned by major museums and publications to create images of prehistoric creatures and scenes.
Knight’s dinosaur images also influenced popular culture and his work inspired the animators for the 1933 film classic “King Kong.”
Both Hawkins and Knight have a connection to the region. Hawkins came to Princeton University in the mid-1870s and created a series of paintings depicting prehistoric life, including Gumby-like Hadrosaurus on the New Jersey coast. Although the paintings could be seen on campus for decades, they are now out of public view.
Knight’s more accurate dinosaurs could be seen on murals used in the university’s paleontology exhibition (which has been dismantled). However, one of his sculptures is also one of the most visible in Princeton: the bronze tiger in Palmer Square.
The Hadrosaurus is in good New Jersey company. Also on view is another new replica of the Mosasaurus maximus, a 50-foot marine reptile discovered in southern New Jersey. It hangs from the ceiling as if it were swimming through space.
“We are very excited to add these two life-size fossil casts to the exhibition,” says New Jersey State Museum’s Curator of Natural History David C. Parris.
He says the two skeleton casts will continue to help engage the thousands of visiting students who have been fascinated by the museum’s actual Mosasaurus skull and “having a full-size Hadrosaurus on display captures the imagination and allows us once again to tell the story of these fossils, New Jersey’s role in their discovery, and how they relate to our planet.”
The new additions were made possible by the support of New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group and join the already existing installation of the two Dryptosaurus aquilunguis — Tyrannosaur-like dinosaurs also from New Jersey -— cast skeletons replicating a battle illustrated by Charles Knight.
Written in the Rocks: Fossil Tales of New Jersey, State Museum, 205 West State Street. Tuesday to Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. $5 suggested donation. 609-292-6464.