Haddonfield Hadrosaurus

May 2, 2010 — New Jersey is a state with some baggage. Some of it is its own fault, of course, but when you’re the little brother suburb to a place like New York City, with its octopine broadcast dominance, you’re going to get publicly picked on until it catches on and becomes cool for everyone to do. Pop culture has its stickers all over my own New Jersey baggage, as well. For me, the state will always be the land of Kevin Smith, the Toxic Avenger, and Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Number one in the hood, G). In other words, kind of cool, but also kind of stupid and disgusting.

But if you dig down through the strata of preconceived notions, exaggerated stereotypes, and easy punch lines, you’ll hit dinosaur bones. Very important dinosaur bones. Change the direction of paleontology important dinosaur bones. Make it possible for Jurassic Park to be awesome important dinosaur bones. Sorry about such an obvious movie reference dinosaur bones.

It was in the garden soil of New Jersey that was found the first near-complete skeleton of a dinosaur in the entire world. That’s right. Not Utah. Not Siberia. Not the Valley of Gwangi. New Jersey. The land of bland rock bands.

It all happened in the town of Haddonfield, in the year of our evolutionary development 1858. A wealthy Victorian gentleman of various occupations named William Parker Foulke was visiting the town when he heard about some giant bones that had been discovered thereabouts some years previously. Tantalized, he spent a few months mucking about in a marl pit on a local farmer’s land. The groundbreaking ended up being groundbreaking when he found the skeleton of a large, strange animal. Although it was missing its skull (presumably in some prehistoric game of dinosaur Highlander), just about 70% of the dinosaur was intact and, when assembled years later, measured about 30 feet long.

Foulke tagged in a professor and naturalist named Joseph Leidy, who was able to discern what the creature was (“Dude, I think you found a dinosaur”), as well as its import. Leidy then named it Hadrosaurus foulkii after its discoverer, although not, as its alliteration might suggest, after its place of discovery. Hadros apparently just means “bulky” or “thick,” so Hadrosaurus foulkii just means “Foulke’s big-ass lizard.”  Not exactly poetic, but historical records show that Foulke was able to use it with deadly force as a pick-up line.

Of course, these days, when the most disinterested third grader has seen more dinosaur bones than all the founding fathers of paleontology put together, it might not be immediately apparent why the discovery of the headless skeleton of an elephant-sized plant-eating lizard such as the Haddonfield Hadrosaurus is a monumental discovery. Well, to that point in time, most of our knowledge of those terrible lizards stemmed from a few random bones and teeth. Heck, the term dinosaur had actually only been coined a mere decade and a half before the Hadrosaurus skeleton was found and the entire legitimacy of the field was still a topic of debate.

But with the dredging of the skeleton from the mud of that New Jersey farm, suddenly this fledgling science had a backbone upon which to build. Not only was it compelling evidence that giant reptiles had indeed roamed the earth at some point before recorded history and not only did we now have an accurate image of them with which to relate, but according to this new find, some of these giants walked on two legs, something which the dinosaur proponents of the time hadn’t yet imagined and which laid the groundwork for future discoveries of such famous therapods as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Velociraptor, and Godzuki.

Naturally, Haddonfield is proud of what came out of its dirt and these days commemorates the find in a pair of ways. First, by marking the discovery site itself, which has also since become a National Historical Landmark. At the dead end of a pleasantly residential street called Maple Ave., a humble three-foot-tall stone with a bronze plaque proclaims to visitors the scientific import of the spot. Erected in 1984 through the efforts of an apparently determined Eagle Scout, the marker includes a fully fleshed image of the Haddonfield Hadrosaurus and some text explaining why a random marker gets a plot in a suburban neighborhood. Behind the marker is a wooded ravine a little ways down which is where the original bones were found.  When I visited, a handful of colorful toy dinosaurs were arranged on a nearby bench to remind us how impoverished childhood would be without these monsters.

The second way Haddonfield celebrates its Hadrosaurus is with a life-sized bronze statue. About a mile away from the discovery site, the town has erected the metal beastie in its downtown shopping district. This Hadrosaurus sculpture is located right at the mouth of a pedestrian alley facing the main strip. The closest store address is 37 E. Kings Highway. You can’t miss it. It’s a dinosaur.

Although this is no murder mystery, I probably should mention where the body ended up. Both Foulke and Leidy were members of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA, just across the Delaware River from Haddonfield. It was here that the bones were taken, and here, 10 years and a Civil War after their discovery, that they were put together to become the first ever mounted and publicly displayed dinosaur skeleton in the world. Come one. Come all. These days, the Academy usually stores the Haddonfield Hadrosaurus bones, although a cast of the skeleton remains on display.

New Jersey eventually chose the Hadrosaurus as its state dinosaur. I realize that’s a “who cares?” kind of fact, but I bring it up because they actually incorporated a stained-glass window of the dinosaur in the State House in Trenton. Stained-glass dinosaurs. Church should’ve been that cool.

However, despite all these venerations, the Haddonfield Hadrosaur is not New Jersey’s only notable dinosaur. Other famous dinosaur finds have been made in the state, including the Dryptosarus in 1866, which is claimed as the second most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found and the first of a carnivorous dinosaur. You might know it from this 1896 Charles R. Knight painting. If not, you should get to know that painting. Although this creature doesn’t have a statue or a National Historic Landmark, it does have its own Facebook page.

Incidentally, there is a segment of the population besides paleontologists that knows about Haddonfield...horror movie fans. Haddonfield was the hometown of Debra Hill, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Carpenter for the original Halloween. Hill used her hometown as inspiration for Haddonfield, IL, which in the movie was the home, of course, of one Michael Myers. Now you're thinking about Michael Myers fighting dinosaurs. Michael Myers fighting dinosaurs. Michael Myers fighting dinosaurs. Sorry. Just want to meet the man or marry the woman who would Google that phrase.