The Story of Durham’s Brontosaurus

Tucked away in the woods of Durham, NC lies a big secret. Drive by and you won’t see it. On one hand, its not really a big secret, you can easily find out basic information about it if you search the web. On the other hand, it’s a last guardian to a time forgotten by almost two generations.

The old Brontosaurus statue has a few names, like ‘the old Brontosaurus’ or ‘old Bronto’. It stands next to a nature trail with its teeth bared, gazing into a large collection of trees and almost camouflaged thanks to its green/gray color. If one walks by and actually sees it, they might wonder what’s a big, old dinosaur statue doing in the middle of a forest? How Bronto got to where he stands now is a very interesting story.

In the mid 1960’s the Durham Museum of Life and Science announced it’s latest edition: a dinosaur trail. All of the animals would look as correct as possible according to 1960’s paleontology. Richard Wescott, who worked at the museum, sought to expand the place into a must-visit attraction. Wescott came up with the idea for a dino trail and started working on making the animals.

Bronto was constructed sometime in 1964. He was probably made out of a mix of lumber, cement, plaster, steel and other materials. His dimensions are reported to be around 77 to 100 feet long and 30 feet tall, depending on who you read. The trail opened in 1967 and the decision was made to place Brontosaurus at the end of the trail, in what was then an open clearing. You’d walk along the forested path, until you suddenly come to a clearing and there stands a huge dinosaur.

Bronto and his eleven friends (including a T. Rex, Triceratops, and Wooly Mammoth) kept being visited by museum tourists for the next 29 years. And then in 1996, Hurricane Fran decided that any dinosaurs in the city of Durham, no matter how realistic, should remain extinct forever. During its rampage across North Carolina it destroyed the trail, specimens and all- except for the Brontosaurus. The decision to put it out in the open instead of inside the forest had saved its life.

After its close encounter with a hurricane- the storm couldn’t even topple the dinosaur over, a testament to Wescott’s building techniques- the forest naturally expanded. Over time, it eventually made the former clearing into just another section of forest. The Thunder Lizard became engulfed by the trees. It could only be seen during the winter months when the leaves fell and one could catch a glimpse. The fateful location made the creature a bit of a legend in the community, but other residents had different plans. Raccoons took up temporary residence inside its stomach, as did a homeless person.

In 2009, now 42, the dinosaur again received press attention- but not the good kind. Vandals had used a chainsaw to decapitate, as it were, the Bronto’s head and neck, leaving a huge steel beam behind. The community decided to restore the creature, raising enough money to make a new head and neck based on the original and put up a small fence around Bronto. Furthermore, the trail placed next to it was named Wescott’s Bronto Trail in honor of both the dinosaur and its creator.

A small metal statue of a Brontosaurus, colored green, was placed at downtown Durham’s American Tobacco Campus in recent years as a possible tribute. There are also several familar-looking silhouettes (including one made with green neon) around the Campus. They are all thanks to Bronto Software, a local company who moved to the Campus years ago. Their logo just happens to look almost exactly like Old Bronto. What a coincidence!

Today, Bronto stands at the exact same place he’s stood since 1967, without any changes in position. A little off to his right sits the last visible portion of the original dinosaur trail. He remains a Durham landmark along with bulls, baseball, and tobacco, and celebrates his 50th birthday in 2017. Hopefully the community or the museum will do something to feature him during the year. I personally would like a metal plaque next to the statue, so the spot he stood on will be preserved for future generations and will tell those future generations about the statue’s significance.

The tale of the Brontosaurus represents not just history. It stands for how people can bond around something and keep it from falling into myth and/or disrepair. It also stands as a tale of good construction and a lasting legacy.

And through all the storms and past difficulties Bronto still stands, a legend in his home.

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