Tracking down the Sinclair Dinosaurs

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Standing at the West end of  Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo is a lone statue often overlooked by the two million guests who visit the park each year. Back in the early ‘70s when I first saw it, just about every dinosaur depicted was either T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, or the long-necked Brontosaurus (later changed to “Apatosaurus” before regaining its legitimacy). The zoo’s dinosaur, however, was none of these but rather an obscure duck-billed variety called (at that time) a Trachodon. Despite what I’d seen in books and cartoons, this replica gave me something that I’d never had before; a true sense of scale. For the first time I could look up and appreciate the actual size of these prehistoric monsters and, over forty years later, I’m fortunate to still be able to see it at the zoo today. Only recently would I gain a true appreciation for the treasure that it is.

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The Trachodon, later identified as an Anatosaurus and nicknamed “Archie” at the zoo, was actually one of nine dinosaurs created by the Sinclair Oil Company back in the early ’60s. These full-sized renderings were designed by the world-renowned wildlife sculptor, Louis Paul Jonas, who was known for his detailed animal replicas displayed at several museums. His most notable work was a group of African Elephants created for the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In his later years, Jonas would finally settle in Hudson, NY where he’d head his own creative studio.

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The Sinclair Oil Company (already using a dinosaur as their mascot) hired Jonas to design a group of dinosaurs for display at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. It would take a team of paleontologists, engineers, and robotic experts three years to prepare them for the 125-mile boat ride down the Hudson River to the event’s coveted “Dinosaur Pavilion.”

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It’s been estimated that over ten million people visited the Pavilion; enthralled by the life-sized, moving dinosaurs. Yes, originally these dinosaurs were animatronic though they’d later have their robotics removed when the Fair ended. Accompanying the dinosaurs was yet another mechanical innovation called Mold-a-Rama. For fifty cents guests could purchase a collectible right before their eyes via big, blue machines that formed small plastic pellets into replicas of the animals on display. There were seven dinosaur Mold-a-Rama machines at the fair, including one for the Trachodon; ironic considering it now resides at a place known for having their own Mold-a-Rama machines. Even before Archie’s arrival, Brookfield Zoo has featured Mold-a-Rama and is one of a handful of zoos in the country that still does. Thanks to eBay, I was able to purchase a few, including our local duckbill and also one of the actual programs for ‘Dinoland.”

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When the fair ended, Sinclair offered all the dinosaurs to the National Smithsonian Museum who, shockingly, declined them. As a result, the dinosaurs would end up scattered throughout the United States with seven of them still accounted for and two missing (one of which, the six-foot tall Ornitholestes, having been stolen). It’s been a goal of mine to try and track down as many of these that I can but my first attempt proved a misfire. In 2015 I searched in vain to find the Triceratops that (according to Roadside America) was in some industrial park in Louisville, Kentucky.  Then, this past November, I hit pay dirt in Glen Rose, Texas at the Dinosaur Valley State Park.

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The Park offers visitors hiking trails with actual dinosaur tracks scattered throughout. On the morning I arrived it had rained the previous night and the tracks had been submerged. The only ones I’d end up seeing this day were featured at the “Welcome” center when I drove in.

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I arrived an hour before the Park opened but, after explaining to the Ranger that my objective was to simply photograph the dinosaur statues, he gave me permission to enter and take as many pictures as I’d like. As soon as I got a clear look at them I could immediately tell they’d been well cared for and could hardly believe they were over fifty years old!

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I’ve heard some alterations were made to the long-neck as it had originally been created to be a Brontosaurus; a species later debunked in favor of Apatosaurus. I’m not sure what, if any, changes those may have been but current science suggests they could have probably just left things as is since the “Thunder Lizard” is now back in the dinosaur lexicon.

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While the T-Rex was standing in a pose (upright with tail dragging) that has long been outdated, he was still pretty amazing!

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After I’d photographed both dinosaurs at every possible angle, I went into the Welcome center to read up on the park itself. Though the tracks had been discovered well over a hundred years ago, Dinosaur Valley State Park didn’t open until 1972; two years after their Sinclair dinosaurs arrived.

Dave Fuentes~

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