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Carnegie Had A Dinosaur Too

May 2024
3min read

Like many Americans, Andrew Carnegie became excited when parties from the American Museum of Natural History collected the remains of large dinosaurs. Reading the New York Journal in November 1898, Carnegie came upon a headline—MOST COLOSSAL ANIMAL EVER ON EARTH JUST FOUND OUT WEST!—accompanied by a drawing of a Brontosaurus standing on its rear legs, trying “to Peep into the Eleventh Story of the New York Life Building.” Carnegie scrawled a note onto the article—“Dear Chancellor, buy this! for Pittsburgh”—and mailed it with a ten-thousand-dollar check to William J. Holland, the newly appointed director of the Carnegie Museum. The steel tycoon had become a dinosaur hunter.

Curiously, the article and the accompanying drawings were entirely based on the discovery of one bone, an eight-foot Brontosaurus (more properly called Apatosaurus) thigh specimen uncovered in Wyoming by the American Museum collector William Reed. Holland met with Reed and signed him to a year’s contract with the Carnegie Museum. In return, Reed gave Holland a dinosaur bone to take back to Pittsburgh and promised to find others.

In 1899 two collectors, J. L. Wortman and Arthur Coggeshall, were sent west to join Reed in Medicine Bow, Wyoming. After a few days of no success, Reed admitted to the others that the Journal article had been based on one bone. It was the only bone he’d ever found at the site.

The collectors were discouraged but vowed to continue. Two months later they had worked their way thirty miles from their original site into the Sheep Creek region of Wyoming. This was geologically a part of the Morrison formation, in which important dinosaur finds had been made before. Finally, on the morning of July 4, 1899, Coggeshall discovered a dinosaur’s toe bone. By afternoon the men had uncovered more bones and realized the find was significant. It was a well-preserved Diplodocus, the most complete found to that time. Because of the date of its discovery, Coggeshall joked that this Late Jurassic beast from 120 million years earlier be called the “Star-Spangled Dinosaur.” Director Holland, however, describing the find in the scientific literature in 1901, chose to honor his patron, officially naming the dinosaur Diplodocus carnegii.

Carnegie was delighted. In later years he was to send the famed collector Earl Douglass west with instructions to “bring back something as big as a barn.” D. carnegii was certainly as big as a barn; at eighty-four feet it was the longest land animal ever found. (It was too big, in fact, to fit inside the Carnegie Museum and was not displayed until 1907.) The millionaire decided to have copies made of “Dippy,” as the skeleton became known, to send all over the world.

This was no simple task, for the Diplodocus skeleton had almost three hundred bones, with twenty-two feet of neck and fifty feet of tail. In life D. carnegii had weighed about twelve tons; although most of that weight was taken up by flesh, the bones were now petrified and were themselves extremely heavy. Arthur Coggeshall had to invent a structural steel framework to support the vertebrate column, a system still used for exhibiting dinosaurs around the world.

A team of Italians skilled in making statues created Dippy’s molds over a two-year period, and the replicas were then cast by Serafino Augustini at a cost of thirty thousand dollars each. Copies were sent to national museums in England, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Russia, Argentina, Spain, and Mexico. Each time Director Holland accompanied the thirty-three boxes of bones, and at each stop he would make a speech, presenting Carnegie’s compliments, receive a medal or two, and then remain to show museum workers how to erect Dippy. (Carnegie himself attended the first presentation, to King Edward VII in London in 1905.) The final trip, in 1929 to Mexico City, was authorized by Louise Carnegie, whose husband had died in 1919.

Because of its widespread dispersal, D. carnegii has become the best-known dinosaur in the world. It became famous enough to have at least one poem written in its honor, an old song quoted by Holland in his book To the River Plate and Back: “The Crowned heads of Europe/All make a royal fuss/Over Uncle Andy/and his old Diplodocus.”

A special concrete copy of Carnegie’s dinosaur, cast from the original molds, was made in Vernal, Utah, in the 1950s. It stands today in the Dinosaur Gardens of the Utah Natural History State Museum. The molds finally fell apart because of old age soon after it was made, so this all-weather Diplodocus—the eleventh version of the dinosaur sent around the world—will stand as the last.

Director Holland, whose shrewd publicity gesture in naming D. carnegii worked such wonders, repeated himself when Earl Douglass discovered an extremely fine Apatosaurus near Vernal in 1909. This dinosaur, 71.5 feet long and 15 feet high, became Apatosaurus louisae, in honor of Carnegie’s wife. The gesture won Holland an extra five thousand dollars for that year’s paleontological research.

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