The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

Hey, you know that amazing Paleozoic Museum in Central Park? Dates right back to the 19th century, with all those life-size statues of elasmosaurs, mosasaurs, mammoths and other North American megafauna? Pretty cool, right?

Oh, wait, you don't?

That would be because a bunch of crooked politicians and street gangsters destroyed it all, while it was still a work in progress, on a fine spring day in 1871.

The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

Above: New York's Central Park in the early 1870s.

The would-be designer and architect of the Paleozoic Museum was Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, the natural history sculptor who had created London's famous Crystal Palace Park dinosaur exhibit during the early 1850s.

The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

Above: Hawkins at work on the Crystal Palace Park statues, circa 1852.

In 1868, Hawkins traveled to the United States, where he gave lectures and, collaborating with paleontologist Joseph Leidy, constructed the world's first fully mounted dinosaur skeleton (a Hadrosaurus foulkii) which was displayed at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences.

The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

Left: Hawkins with his Hadrosaur.

The enormous success and fame of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs inspired the Commissioners of Manhattan's newly-founded Central Park to invite Hawkins to New York City. Together, they conceived plans for an even more ambitious exhibition, representing a sculptural menagerie of the dinosaurs and other megafauna of prehistoric North America. The Paleozoic Museum would be contained within a vast glass-ceilinged building at the corner of Central Park West and 63rd Street.

Establishing a workshop in the Park's Arsenal Building, Hawkins set about creating huge clay molds for models of Dryptosaurs (then known as "Laelaps"), an Elasmosaur, a Mosasaur, giant ground sloths, mammoths and other antediluvian creatures. Meanwhile, the famous architect Frederick Law Olmstead designed and laid the museum's foundations.

The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

Above: the Armory workshop.

All went more-or-less according to plan until Hawkins dared to publicly speak out against the corrupt local politician William "Boss" Tweed, whose Tammany Hall cronies were officially responsible for aspects of Central Park's design. In practice, Tweed's men seldom even visited the Park, but when they did, they were inclined to demand that "improvements" should be made, such as painting bronze statues white so that they would look as if they were made of marble.

Affronted by criticism from a "pasty Englishman" and angry that they could find no way to gain kickbacks from the museum construction, Tweed's associates decided to sabotage Hawkins' work. A goon squad of street gangsters armed with sledgehammers broke into the workshop and smashed the seven completed statues and molds, burying the rubble somewhere near the southwestern corner of the park.

The vandalism and the greedy ignorance that had fueled it were roundly condemned by New York's intelligentsia, but there was nothing anyone could do. One of "Boss" Tweed's cronies was reported as having told Hawkins:

Don't you bother so much about dead animals. There are lots of live animals - you can make models of them.

Frustrated and contemptuous, Hawkins was forced to abandon the Paleozoic Museum project. He later created dinosaur reconstructions at Princeton University (then called the College of New Jersey) and also worked at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia; two years later, he returned permanently to England.

Over the next 140-odd years, the names of "Boss" Tweed and Tammany Hall became bywords for the worst excesses of political graft and corruption, while Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins became celebrated as a visionary pioneer of paleontological sculpture.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins

The Lost Dinosaurs of New York's Central Park

His "Dinosaur Court" continues to enthrall visitors to Crystal Palace and provides a poignant memoir of the Paleozoic Museum that was never built in Central Park.