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Dakota’s Dubious Dinosaurs

by Jennifer McIntyre published 2019/02/06 10:49:00 GMT-5
Dakota’s Dubious Dinosaurs

In 1992, South Dakota rebranded itself the Mount Rushmore State, suggesting that the iconic sculpture carved into the Black Hills mountain of the same name was the state’s most distinctive feature. While the famed foursome of presidential faces continues to garner the bulk of attention, the erstwhile Sunshine State is home to plenty of other sculptures that merit recognition. What other state, after all, can lay claim to having the world’s largest pheasant or even a gigantic fiberglass jackalope? Similarly, the Jurassic (and Cretaceous) giants stalking Rapid City’s Dinosaur Park have a hallowed place in the annals of South Dakota sculpture.  

Recently, Dinosaur Park had the dubious honor of appearing in an Atlantic photo essay documenting wildly inaccurate dinosaur sculptures from around the world. That piece errs, however, in describing the park’s residents as “Sinclair Oil dinosaurs,” a perhaps understandable mistake given that the Brontosaurus bears a striking resemblance to that petroleum conglomerate’s mascot. Instead, the denizens of Dinosaur Park owe their existence to an effort to bolster Black Hills tourism during the Great Depression.

Geologist Cleophas Cisney O’Harra, then president of the South Dakota School of Mines, hatched the idea for Dinosaur Park in the early 1930s, suggesting that a park could both showcase the region’s growing reputation as a haven for fossil hunters and divert some of the visitors flocking to Mount Rushmore, which was still under construction, into Rapid City. The city’s chamber of commerce approved the plan in 1935 after securing funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency that put thousands of unemployed Americans to work on community improvement projects between 1935 and 1943. The WPA played a key role in developing potential sites of public interest in the Black Hills during these years. Local sculptor Emmitt A. Sullivan designed the dinosaur models, and WPA workers helped build them.

Believe it or not, the park’s Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus rex, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Trachodon sculptures represented the best scientific thinking of the day. Indeed, Barnum Brown, a renowned paleontologist credited with discovering the first documented Tyrannosaurus rex remains near Jordan, Montana, in 1902, served as consultant. A South Dakota Guide, compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project—a division of the WPA—and released in 1938, included Dinosaur Park in a suggested tour of Rapid City, praising Sullivan’s “monstrous prehistoric creatures.” The guide describes the park’s T-Rex and Triceratops as “waging combat,” comparing the former to a kangaroo. It similarly pegs the Trachodon as a cross between a kangaroo and a duck. The Brontosaurus, meanwhile, was the largest model of its kind to date, “reproduced exactly to the measurements of the fossils in the American Museum of Natural History.” Sullivan later produced a nearly identical Brontosaurus that remains on display at Wall Drug.

Even as advances in paleontology have transformed how modern visitors view Dinosaur Park, the models themselves have changed. The T-Rex’s formerly sharp teeth have long since been knocked out. The spiky plates on the Stegosaurus’s tail are gone as well, a casualty of either safety concerns or wear and tear. Most prominently, city workers painted the dinosaurs bright green with white underbellies at some point in the 1950s, a stark departure from their original grey. The cartoonish critters looming over Rapid City might seem like another piece of roadside kitsch, hardly comparable to a site of perceived national import like Mount Rushmore. Yet, both sites were born of the same effort to promote Black Hills tourism. Further, Dinosaur Park stands as a reminder of the far-reaching impact that New Deal programs like the WPA had throughout South Dakota, a subject explored at length in R. Alton Lee’s A New Deal for South Dakota. Perhaps just as importantly, and in contrast to their stone-faced presidential counterparts, the dinosaurs are always good for some fun.

Cody Ewert

The image at top is from a postcard that touts the sculptures as “faithful reproductions” and hails Dinosaur Park as “a unique display, the only one of its kind in the United States.” The dog’s identity is unknown. South Dakota State Historical Society, Digital Archives