By Krista Karlson
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Summer 2019
The rift was more than 100 miles long, beginning in present-day New Haven and extending north to what is now Keene, New Hampshire. Tucked in the valley’s deep embrace, lakes teemed with fish, a welcome treat for the 1,000-pound inhabitants of the area. Ferns carpeted the mud flats, and cycads dotted the lakeshores.
Connecticut’s landscape and climate 200 million years ago provided the perfect conditions for dinosaurs. After Pangea broke apart, Connecticut was closer to the equator than it is today, somewhere around where Puerto Rico now is. Dilophosaurus, a speedy carnivore that, contrary to its depiction in the movie Jurassic Park, didn’t have a neck frill or spit venom, is believed to have lived in the area, though no skeletal remains have been found. A series of fossilized tracks in what is now Rocky Hill, though, match its foot shape and size.
The tracks in Rocky Hill are surprising, and not just because one could ostensibly spend a lifetime in Connecticut and never know that the largest on-site display of dinosaur tracks in North America is right down the road. Multiple layers of fossilized footprints represent thousands of years of dinosaur activity. The tracks were made by impressions in the soft, wet ground and preserved by eroded sediment from the mountains, which were Himalaya-sized at their creation but were weathering by the early Jurassic period.
A bulldozer driver discovered the tracks by accident in 1966. The state was breaking ground for a state highway department facility, but when a bulldozer upturned a sandstone slab with six dinosaur tracks on it, construction halted. Geologists and paleontologists from Yale University, Wesleyan University, and the University of Connecticut confirmed that these were fossilized tracks of our bipedal predecessors.
The largest number of tracks arecalled Eubrontes, a term coined by pioneering paleontologist Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College in the 1840s. (Tracks and dinosaur fossils have different names.) He found Eubrontes specimens in sandstone quarries all over the Connecticut River Valley. Smaller tracks, called Anchisauripus, and much larger, four-toed tracks, called Otozoum, were also found at the Rocky Hill site. Eubrontes was designated the official Connecticut State Fossil in 1991.
Governor John Dempsey declared the site a state park, and during two years of excavation, 2,000 tracks were unearthed. When excavation was complete in 1968, a smaller area of 600 tracks was chosen to remain on display, while the rest tracks were re-buried for preservation until a larger museum could be built. That plan has yet to be realized.
The site was almost immediately designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Serviceand was added to the registry in 1968. The National Register of Natural Landmarks wasestablished by theU.S.Secretary of the Interior just six years earlier toencourage the preservation of geological and biological features that are nationally significant examples of the nation’s natural heritage.
Dinosaur State Park is unusual in that the building was constructed around the tracks. Most museums collect specimens and display them in a central location, but these specimens stayed in place. “We brought the museum to the fossils, instead of the other way around,” says Meg Enkler, the park’s recently retired environmental education coordinator. “You’re seeing the exact location of where these dinosaurs were wandering around 200 million years ago.” And wander, they did. The tracks represent not a gathering of dinosaurs but their comings and goings, says Enkler.
The park opened in 1968 with an air-inflated dome over the selected tracks. The dome repeatedly collapsed, however, and was destroyed by wind in 1975. The park closed, and in 1977 construction began on a permanent building, which opened the following year, though work continued on the interior and exhibits for another 20 years. In 1979 the first trees were planted in a planned Arboretum of Evolution. The Friends of Dinosaur State Park was established in 1976 and has played an important role in funding programming and developing exhibits for the new building. The life-sized model of Dilophosauruswas one of their first projects. (See story below.)
The museum closed again for two years in 1994 for a $1.8 million renovation to the interior paid for by the State of Connecticut. A new walkway over the tracks, the 80-foot mural behind Dilophosaurus, and better lighting and sound were added. Record crowds, The Hartford Courant reported on March 13, 1997, visited after the museum reopened in June 1996.
Meanwhile, research continues at the site. Although world-renowned geologists have studied the fossils, mysteries remain. James (Drew) Hyatt, a professor of geomorphology at Eastern Connecticut State University, is following in the footsteps of a long line of scientists fascinated by the tracks in Rocky Hill. He is creating a detailed model of the tracks using photogrammetry, which measures the indentations down to the millimeter. A book resulting from this work, edited by James Farlow of Indiana-Purdue University and including the work of 19 scientists, is in the works.
Today Dinosaur State Park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016, receives 40,000 visitors a year. The experience isn’t just for children. “Some people have a perception that dinosaur museums are for kids, but we have a lot of adults [who]come without kids,” says Enkler. In fact, roughly 50 percent of visitors are adults. The park now encompasses 80 acres and features specimen plants and hiking trails. The park welcomes more than 60 school groups every year, and that number is on the rise thanks to changes in the Connecticut state science standards, which place more emphasis on geology and paleontology than curricula past.
Friends of Dinosaur State Park
By Elizabeth J. Normen
The Friends of Dinosaur Park and Arboretum (FDPA), established in 1976, has played an important role in enhancing the visitor’s experience and learning opportunities at the park. It was established to advocate for the protection and preservation of the trackway and to promote public knowledge about natural history, paleontology, and geology through education programs, lectures, and exhibits and displays at the park. The nonprofit organization formally incorporated in 1987. It’s one of at least 20 Friends organizations associated with Connecticut state parks.
The FDPA is the vehicle by which fans of the state park and those interested in paleontology and natural history can get more involved at the park. The group operates the museum shop, helps maintain the trails and grounds, and raises money for education activities, programs, and exhibits. The FDPA estimates that volunteers provide more than 2,000 hours of time and talent to the park each year.
The life-size model of Dilophosaurus was one of the first major exhibit-related projects taken on by the FDPA. Installed in the new building in 1981, it was designed by Dr. Donald Baird of Princeton University and artist Gregory Paul and fabricated by Richard Rush Studio of Chicago. It was funded through a bequest by Louise Cogswell Cushman at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. In 1981 the Friends commissioned Chase Studios of Cedar Creek, Missouri to create a miniature diorama representingthe Triassic/Jurassic era at a cost of $35,000. In addition to FDPA’s funding, a small grant from the Hartford Foundation supported the project.
But the museum was still largely an empty shell. The park staff reported in the FDPA’s March-April 1984 newsletter, “We, at the Park, have worked in almost primitive conditions for more than fifteen years—without exhibit, classroom and office space; and occasionally without heat, ventilation or adequate light. Our programming was largely ‘making do’ with what we had. … Now we are about to reach a new plateau with exciting educational opportunities. … We will be depending much more on the Friends of Dinosaur State Park.” The September-October 1985 FDPA newsletter gave a sense of what was needed. “We know that you are all very busy, but we still need you! The bookshop is a continuous project, the lizards need care, the nature trails are covered with leaves, the gardens need tending, and our casting area is ailing. Inside, especially on the weekend, the phone rings constantly, and visitors ask hundreds of questions and demand programs.” By 1986, visitation had reached 63,677and by 1988 had jumped to 86,075 visitors.
In 1984 the FDPA began operating the new museum shop. Since then, shop proceeds have been a major source of the organization’s funding. Those funds have been put to good use. In 1988 the organization donated models of Rutidon and Metoposaurus and in 1993 commissioned artist William Sillin to create a 14-by-30-foot mural behind the Rutidon exhibit, funded in part by a Hartford Foundation matching grant.
“The Friends’ priority continues to be enhancing the state park through providing educational programs and exhibits,” FDPA Vice President Susan Lionberger said, adding, “This helps create awareness of the natural history that’s right here in the state of Connecticut.” Fundraising can be a challenge, she admits, because people may assume the state pays for everything—or should. Their most recent projects include the planning for upgrades to the Discovery Room, completed in 2014, and a hands-on “dig pit” for budding paleontologists, added in 2018.
Perhaps the FDPA’s biggest annual event is Dinosaur State Park Day—Dino Day, for short—held to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of the dinosaur tracks. Last year’s event, supported by many local businesses, was attended by 2,700 people of all ages. This year’s Dino Day will be held on August 17, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine. The event is free.
Krista Karlson is a journalist whose work focuses on the environment and the outdoors. Elizabeth J. Normen is publisher of Connecticut Explored.
Dinosaur State Park
400 West Street, Rocky Hill
This is the fifth in a series of stories about the history of nonprofits in Connecticut, funded in part by the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving.