Hidden dinosaur: Life-sized brontosaurus from 1960s still roams Durham woods
While walking along heavily-wooded Greenway trail in Durham, you may be surprised to turn a curve and find a full-sized dinosaur face peering out at you from behind the branches.
Over 70 feet long, this mammoth beast has been in Durham for over 50 years – the last remaining piece of the museum's original Dinosaur Trail, which opened in 1967.
Generations of students recall walking the trail behind the Museum of Life & Science and seeing the long-necked giant, one of the largest of its kind during the time. The trail felt authentic and prehistoric in its heyday – full of thick foliage and trees draped in ivy, with multiple enormous dinosaurs visible in overgrowth.
However, by the early 1990s, the dinosaurs along the trail were getting old and falling into states of disrepair, leaving the dinosaur known as Bronto alone in the woods and abandoned by the herd that once lived alongside him.
'A paper mache graveyard:' Dinosaur trail falls into disrepair
The Dinosaur Trail faced its share of extinction-level challenges. In December of 1967, the year the trail opened, vandalism became an immediate issue. Five dinosaur models on the 'Prehistoric Nature Trail' were smashed to pieces. Even poor Bronto had footprints all up and down his 72-foot length.
Richard Wescott, a former architectural designer, crafted 12 life-sized models for the trail, all based upon fossil evidence. In the 1960s and 70s, it would have been considered a state-of-the-art and next-level museum attraction. Even today, many locals recall with excitement their first visit to see the dinosaur trail.
However, by the 1990s, the dinosaurs began falling into disrepair, according to a 1994 article in the Durham Herald Sun. According to articles from that time, the trail was no longer listed on the museum's map or marketed as an exhibit. People could technically still visit the trail -- but newspapers from the time describe the trail as a frightening sight.
"The trail, a densely wooded path that circles Ellerbee Creek, was once a major museum attraction. Now, it's a shabby reminder of the museum's less sophisticated days," wrote the Herald Sun.
The dinosaur models were described as "on their way to extinction" – chipped, peeling, cracked, rotting and vandalized. Some even had missing limbs.
Even then, Bronto was said to be the single dinosaur that had not fallen so far into destruction that he was past saving.
Some interviews with museum officials said they hoped to restore the dinosaurs and re-open the trail, but Hurricane Fran ripped through the Triangle in 1996 – and ripped through the dream of dinosaurs returning to that stretch of woods. The destruction was simply too much to overcome. Instead, the museum eventually opened a new dinosaur trail in a different location – leaving Bronto alone, a former remnant of a lost time.
Bronto loses his head in a vandalism attack
Nearly two decades later, Bronto suffered another blow: His head was cut off by vandals, leaving a long, rusted metal beam stretching out of his body.
A small portion of the neck was found on the ground, and his head was missing.
The surrounding neighborhood was outraged. They had been working with the museum in the early 2000's to remove undergrowth and debris, and preserve Bronto. To them, and many others, he was a piece of Durham history.
"While a lot of the other pieces suffered damage during Hurricane Fran and a few ice storms in recent times, the Brontosaurus seemed immune. From a neighborhood perspective, we are just as outraged as our friends at the museum that someone so callous could act so selfishly in destroying a piece of history," said Mike Shiflett, Northgate Park adopt-a-park coordinator at the time.
Fortunately, Bronto survived the attack. His head was found a few days later. A new sculptor was hired to repair his head, and the community pulled together to raise thousands of dollars for his repairs. Some may still have the 'Save Bronto' T-shirts printed as part of the fundraiser.
Today, visitors can see Bronto along the Ellerbee Creek Trail near Northgate Park, where he still stands after generations – a beloved and historical icon that outlived all the other dinosaurs.
Podcast: Triangle trails that lead to abandoned historic ruins
Want to go exploring and find lost pieces of history in the Triangle? Places like the Eno River, Umstead Park and Falls Lake have abandoned ruins dating back to the 1700s hidden right off their hiking trails. Visit an abandoned highway running through the woods, or a water treatment plant from the 1800s, and old cemeteries and mills crumbling in the woods. WRAL Hidden Historian Heather Leah talks to Amanda Lamb about hiking trails where lost history awaits in our latest podcast! Listen here!
Or watch a firsthand visit to the 'Hidden Durham Dinosaur'
WRAL Hidden Historian Heather Leah takes you on a firsthand 'tour' to see Bronto in-person in her latest livestream on WRAL's Facebook. Watch below!