When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey
Haddonfield, New Jersey, gave the world a breakthrough in paleontology not once but twice, with the discovery and rediscovery of North America’s first dinosaur.
This is the latest edition of The Daily Beast's twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
My familiarity with dinosaurs probably started as others did, with library books and grade-school field trips, and then over time faded down into maybe catching some films in the Jurassic Park franchise.
Now in my forties, I decided that a drive to southern New Jersey might reinvigorate that sense of childlike wonder. And so it was that I wound up in Haddonfield, a borough in Camden County about 20 minutes from Philadelphia. For Haddonfield was once the source of a significant 19th century discovery that helped shape the course of much of modern-day paleontology.
It was in Haddonfield that the first nearly complete skeleton of a dinosaur was discovered in North America. Its name: “Hadrosaurus foulkii.”
Actually, it was discovered twice: once in the 19th century and again in the 20th.
I learned the story when I contacted Butch Brees, whose now-grown son, Christopher, played a major part in the saga. In 1984, Christopher, then a teenager, was working to make Eagle Scout, and it was his badge project that sparked renewed interest in this key piece of New Jersey history.
“Nobody really placed any kind of marker down as to where the actual dinosaur was found,” said Butch, who was a scoutmaster at the time.
The South Jersey property where fossils were first found in the 19th century was farmland owned by John Estaugh Hopkins. In 1858, Hopkins invited his friend William Parker Foulke, a Philadelphia lawyer and an avid natural historian, to dinner at his home.
In the course of their visit, Hopkins told Foulke about some bones he had found in a marl pit on his land about 20 years earlier (apparently, some were given to friends as souvenirs or used as doorstops.).
Foulke was also a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Intrigued by what he heard, he asked Hopkins to take him to the site where the bones had been excavated. Then he requested permission to return with a digging crew.
“About six to 10 feet down, they started discovering bone after bone,” said Butch.
After the bones were confirmed as fossilized dinosaur bones, paleontologist and Academy member Joseph Leidy came out to the site. The bones were then taken to the Academy (now the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University), where they remain today.
Leidy came up with the name “Hadrosaurus foulkii,” which means “Foulke’s bulky lizard.” Although a complete skull was never recovered, the excavation supplied enough physical evidence to assemble a skeletal structure—just 16 years after the term “dinosaur” was coined in 1842 by English paleontologist Richard Owen.
Ten years later at the Academy, English sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins reassembled the skeleton and cast missing parts out of plaster. When the reassembled skeleton was displayed in Philadelphia in 1868, crowds flocked to see the first reconstructed dinosaur in a museum.
“It really was Ground Zero in the study of modern paleontology,” explained Butch, “because now they knew what a dinosaur looked like. They were able to lay out the bones and cast pieces in between to really say, this is what a dinosaur looked like and how big it was.”
“Hadrosaurus foulkii” was a hadrosaur, a plant-eating, duckbill dinosaur from the Cretaceous period, living along coastal waterways where muddy sediment was accumulating at that time [its bones would become incorporated into them]. According to Ted Daeschler, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences, 19th-century South Jersey farmers saw the ancient sediment had value.
“[They] figured out that some of these ancient sediments were actually quite organically rich and could serve as a natural fertilizer for farm fields,” said Daeschler. So, farmers dug up these sandy clay layers. Farmer Hopkins’ marl pit was one such site.
During their research, Christopher and his father came across written proceedings on the presentation of the bones to the Academy by Leidy plus a hand-drawn map of Hopkins’ farm.
Upon meeting officials from the Academy, and getting their support, Christopher and his fellow Scouts went to work to create a park to commemorate the digging site. The park is located at the end of Maple Street, a side road off Grove Street (the actual site is about 150 feet past the park).
In 1984, a ceremony at the park with local and state officials celebrated its completion. A decade later, the site would be declared a National Historic Landmark.
Two memorial markers—one mounted on stone, the other standing on a pole—acknowledge both milestones. There’s also a wooden stand with a map and brochures.
Butch continues to look after the site, and he keeps track of visitors through a guestbook. “We’ve had close to 7,000 visitors that have visited the site,” he said.
Christopher Brees’ Eagle Scout project inspired more recognition for Hadrosaurus foulkii in 1991, when it was named New Jersey’s official state dinosaur, thanks to Joyce Berry, a teacher, and her third-grade class at Strawbridge Elementary School in Haddon Township.
In 2003, a sculpture of Hadrosaurus foulkii by artist and sculptor John Giannotti was placed in downtown Haddonfield on Hadrosaurus Lane. It has become a fun photo op.
Butch Brees, who also takes care of the statue and manages merchandise sold through a related website, isn’t sure why Hadrosaurus foulkii fell off Haddonfield’s radar for more than a century after its initial discovery.
“I think it got lost in time,” he said. “Over the years, people just kind of forgot about the fact that this was a very unique and important dinosaur. What happened then was that Chris created the site and brought a lot of attention [back] to the dinosaur being found in Haddonfield.”