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Dippy the star-spangled dinosaur

Friday, July 02, 1999

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One hundred years ago, on the morning of July 4, 1899, while walking along a rocky ridge in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, a paleontologist working for Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum found a toe bone from a hind foot of a dinosaur.

To mark the centennial of discovering "Dippy," the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is preparing to unveil a life-size statue of Diplodocus carnegii. Above is a sneak preview. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

The thundering heartbeat he heard was his own: This was big. Yet he couldn't have imagined where his lucky find would lead.

A century later, the museum -- now Carnegie Museum of Natural History -- is preparing to unveil, in its side yard along Forbes Avenue in Oakland, a life-size statue of that dinosaur, which turned out to be a Diplodocus. That specimen went on to become world-famous by its nickname, "Dippy," and become the mascot for the museum, where it remains an 84-foot centerpiece of Dinosaur Hall.

The new model of the "living" Dippy has been erected under secrecy and tarps, which won't be removed for the public until Wednesday, after an ad campaign of orchestrated suspense.

Meanwhile, for hype and drama, it's hard to beat the bare bones of the history behind how Dippy came to Pittsburgh and went from here to several other cities around the globe. Carnegie education editor Matt Phillips, who with collections manager Elizabeth Hill researched the saga for a centennial exhibit, calls it "a soap opera about bones."

Dippy's story starts months earlier, on a Sunday morning in November 1898, with a man reading in his newspaper about a different paleontological find.

The man happened to be one of the world's wealthiest: steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie. The paper was the New York World, which carried a full-page package with several pictures under the banner headline, "Most Colossal Animal Ever on Earth Just Found Out West!"

This monster had been discovered by a University of Wyoming fossil collector. The World depicted it as a Brontosaurus standing on its hind legs and peering in a New York skyscraper's 11th-floor window.

The philanthropic Carnegie, who'd just built his namesake museum in Pittsburgh, wrote a note to its director, Dr. William J. Holland, right on the page margin:

"Buy this for Pittsburgh."

He mailed the story and followed it up with a check for $10,000.

Holland immediately contacted the fossil-finder -- Bill Reed -- then went out to Wyoming to contract him to work for Carnegie Museum.

After much deft politicking with state authorities, Holland also brought back to Pittsburgh a 500-pound fragment of femur Reed had found, which he described for his friend "A.C." as "a very large soupbone."

This was their first claim in the great Bone Rush, a scramble to feed a public recently ravenous for all things dinosaur. Leading the race was a place Carnegie had visited -- the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

That's where Holland went next, to hire away two of the American's paleontologists: J.L. Wortman and Arthur S. Coggeshall.

Besides helping Reed, the two were charged with building a paleontology department for Carnegie Museum, which was starting with just Andrew Carnegie's dino fever -- that and his big ego and bigger bankroll.

That April, Wortman and Coggeshall came to Pittsburgh to much Holland-hyped news coverage. Then they took the Overland Limited to meet Reed in Medicine Bow, Wyo., which Coggeshall later described as the "wild and wooly" old West, where railroad graders and cowboys had "nightly shooting scrapes" and "gambling in the saloons ran full blast."

The three bone hunters gambled, too, twice crossing makeshift pontoon bridges with their horse-drawn wagon, which held a ton of plaster and other gear. But finally they made it to the Freeze Out Mountains, where Reed had made his much-publicized find.

After days of poking about at the site and finding nothing, Wortman and Coggeshall made a discovery of their own: Reed admitted that he'd only found that single leg piece here. The "Most Colossal Animal Ever" was looking like a colossal hoax.

A bone to pick

    Dippy's homes away from home

Casts of Carnegie Museum's Diplodocus carnegii can be found at museums on three continents:

British Museum (Natural History), London (given in May 1905)
Humboldt Museum, Berlin (April or May 1908)
National Museum of Natural History, Paris (June 1908)
Museum of Natural History, Vienna (Sept. 1909)
Aldrovandi Museum, University of Bologna, Italy (Oct. 1909)
Paleontological Institute, Moscow, moved from St. Petersburg (July 1910)
Museum of Natural Sciences, La Plata, Argentina (Sept./Oct. 1911)
National Museum, Madrid (Nov. 1913
National Museum of Natural Science, Mexico City (April 1930)
Bayerische Staatssammlung fur Palaontologie, Munich (1934); to be mounted soon in a new museum
Field House of Natural History, Vernal, Utah (newly recastre)

More coverage of "Dippy:

The skeleton in Dippy's closet: He's more than one dinosaur

Schedule of events


Something was "rotten," a word Wortman used twice in one of his letters back to Holland, in which he fumed, "The whole thing has been grossly exaggerated from start to finish."

Pushed by, perhaps as much as anything, the fear of failing their boss, the three struck out into the badlands to try other sites, accompanied by Reed's son, Will, whom Wortman hired as cook. By July 3, they were camped on Sheep Creek, near an outcrop of the Morrison Formation that they suspected might hold the remains of dinosaurs from the Jurassic period.

There are two versions of what happened that Fourth of July.

According to the official one, based on a memoir Coggeshall wrote for Carnegie Magazine in 1951, they kept working that holiday. Wortman and Reed rode off on the horses to check out another spot, leaving Coggeshall to "prospect" on foot or -- as bone hunters often do -- all fours.

If you've ever stood alone in Wyoming, dwarfed by country wider than the eye can see, you have an idea of how amazing it is that a person could find the toe and a few other weathered bits of bone of a behemoth that lived 150 million years ago.

"It was then," Coggeshall recalled, "that the heartbeats of the writer really became loud, for it was the best prospect any of us had discovered in over two months of hard and disappointing work, and we did so want to make good with a dinosaur for Mr. Carnegie."

As modest as his account sounds, it conflicts with what Holland wrote in 1916 in Reed's obituary, in which he credited Reed: "The Fourth of July was being celebrated in camp as a holiday, and Mr. Reed, shouldering his rifle, went out to hunt, and on his rambles discovered the deposit which yielded up the skeleton of that now famous specimen."

Hill, the collections manager who's familiar with thousands of pages of documents and correspondence, says she's found nothing to disprove Coggeshall. (Perhaps Reed earned partial credit: In a June 28 letter, Wortman tells Holland that Reed had scouted that territory earlier.)

What's indisputable is that one of this determined Carnegie team found something that would become a very big deal.

As Phillips puts it, "It's totally gone the way of legend."


Generations of Pittsburghers have encountered "Dippy" in the 95 years that the world's longest mounted fossil skeleton has resided in Dinosaur Hall. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

In a letter from Sheep Creek Basin dated July 4, Wortman wrote to Holland, "I am very happy to report some good luck at last." He described the bones "we have," which he thought to be from a small and a large "Brontosaur." He promised that if they could work for at least two months, they would deliver "a collection that will be worth while looking at when prepared and placed upon exhibition."

Holland kept Carnegie's cash coming, which prompted Reed to send Holland a thank-you note that concluded, with creative spelling, "I think we have a prety good thing in the Sheep Creek beds and we will likely be there when you come out so you can see the lay out and we can have a long talk."

Before Holland visited, Wortman sent the director a long shopping list of provisions he wanted him to pick up on his way there, including 100 pounds of Best flour, 5 pounds of "Arbuckles Ariosa Coffee (ground)" and "2 Godsized Hams." He sounded almost giddy as he noted the quality and quantity of bones they were finding. "We have 'a mighty good stagger' at a skeleton of Diplodocus which is a 'rare bird indeed' and others almost too numerous to mention."

By the time Holland arrived at "Camp Carnegie" in August, the men had built beside their canvas tents a wooden shed to store their ancient treasures, which they were unearthing with the local hired help. Despite almost daily visits from scientists from around the country, the team managed to encase in burlap and plaster tons of fossils to be shipped back to Pittsburgh -- some in crates made from lumber from the dismantled shed.

The best specimen was the Diplodocus, which Coggeshall later joked should have been called, because of its July 4 finding, "The Star-Spangled Dinosaur."

This general family, or genus, of dinosaur already was known and named, the Greek root meaning "double-beamed" for the shape of small chevron bones on the underside of the long, whip-like tail.

This one probably had died in the mud of an ancient lake and stayed relatively undisturbed as it was buried in sediment, because it was the most complete skeleton yet found.

Still, when the remains were studied that winter in Pittsburgh, some bones were found to be missing. So that spring another field team returned to Camp Carnegie, where they exhumed another Diplodocus.

It was determined that these were a never-before-seen species, which was named the next year Diplodocus carnegii, in honor of you-know-who.

Some of Andrew Carnegie's friends coined the nickname of "Dippy" for the creature, which was becoming famous faster than its bones were coming together.


At the turn of the century, the 84-feet-long Diplodocus -- the longest dinosaur ever found -- couldn't even be mounted in the museum, which at that time was just three rooms upstairs from the library. This was, in fact, the big reason Carnegie expanded the place, which premiered, along with Dippy, in 1907.

But Londoners, not Pittsburghers, got to see the spectacle of the mounted skeleton first, because of Carnegie's connections.

English King Edward VII was visiting the American industrialist at his Skibo Castle in Scotland and happened to see a sketch of the awesome beast. As later recounted by Holland, the king remarked, "I say, Carnegie, what in the world is this?"

The 5-foot-2-inch Carnegie replied, "The hugest quadruped that ever walked the Earth, a namesake of mine."

The king wanted one, too, for the British Museum.

Now, despite how easy Carnegie's hired bone hunters may have made it look, Holland knew that you don't just go out and trip over one of these things.

So he and Carnegie worked out a plan to make molds of the original bones and cast replicas for this royal friend.

It was a royal pain that took a crew of Italian plasterers two years to complete, working in the cramped rooms at the old museum. The only space big enough to test-mount the king's model was the Pittsburgh Exposition Building, which then stood at the Point. Before the public could see it, Coggeshall and two assistants put up the cast and took it down. Then, they accompanied it to London, where Carnegie himself presented the gift in 1905.

Dippy was a celebrity -- "the beast of the hour" -- who showed up in articles, cartoons, even a popular tavern song:

The crowned heads of Europe

All make an awful fuss

Over Uncle Andy

And his old Diplodocus.

President Teddy Roosevelt even wrote Holland upon his return: "What a bully time you must have had in London! The use which the political caricaturists made of your Diplodocus was most amusing. What a pity that the thing died out! What glorious shooting we would have had on the Little Missouri if it survived to our time!"

Dippy sees the world

Kaiser Wilhelm II wanted a Dippy for Germany and got a replica for Berlin in 1908. France got one, as did Austria, Italy, Russia, Argentina and Spain -- in that order, all by 1913. In 1930, another cast was given to Mexico. According to Carnegie Museum staff, all are still on display.

Only two other casts are known to have been made. One went, in exchange for European fossils, to Munich in 1934, but the records were lost in World War II, and the casts -- still packed in the original 33 crates -- weren't discovered until 1977. That cast finally is to be mounted within a few years at a brand-new museum.

Another cast used to stand on the lawn at the Utah Field House of Natural History in Vernal, Utah, where the molds were shipped in 1957. That model is gone now, but it was used to make new molds for a new cast that is displayed inside today.

Dippy's original molds have disintegrated.

But the original, real fossil skeleton still stands strong in Pittsburgh's Dinosaur Hall, on the Coggeshall-devised steel framework, no less, that is used by museums everywhere.

Dippy now is surrounded by several other dinos, including the flashier-toothed T. rex, and has lost its place in the headlines to probably even bigger behemoths like Seismosaurus and Supersaurus. Chicago's Field Museum now boasts the largest mounted skeleton, of a Brachiosaurus, a beast that got a big part in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster "Jurassic Park."

But Dippy continues to hold the record as the longest mounted skeleton, as well as its starring role in the history of Carnegie Museum, which has been called "the house that Dippy built."

As Phillips wrote for the centennial exhibit that now greets visitors there, "Its discovery inaugurated a three-decade-long period of dinosaur collecting that would establish the museum as a pioneer in the study of paleontology."

Indeed, as Holland wrote in Wortman's obituary, "The beast has often been referred to as 'the animal which made paleontology popular' " -- the one, others have said, that made "dinosaur" a household word.

Reed, Wortman and even Coggeshall never got a sliver of that name recognition, but Carnegie Museum did. Holland took every chance to use Dippy to get in the faces of his sniffy European counterparts and boost the reputation of American science.

The Carnegie's first paleontologists were followed by bigger names, like Earl Douglass. Still financed by Andrew Carnegie (who spent a quarter-million of his own dollars on dinos before he died in 1919), Douglass made spectacular finds in the part of Utah that is now Dinosaur National Monument.

Those dinosaur fossils help make the Carnegie Museum's collection the third-largest in the world after the American Museum and the Smithsonian. And while museum paleontologists don't as actively collect dinosaurs, they still study them, while pursuing fossils of mammals, birds and more.

It all started 100 years ago today with three guys looking for the Most Colossal Animal Ever.

The museum's Hill, who's hunted a few dinosaurs in her day, remains impressed.

"They went out to find a dinosaur and, by God, they found it," she says. "It's like a fairy tale."

Bob Batz Jr. is a Post-Gazette staff writer who, for a Sunday Magazine article two summers ago, hunted fossils in Wyoming with a Carnegie team. For this piece, he mined the book "Carnegie's Dinosaurs" by Helen J. McGinnis (1993), Arthur S. Coggeshall's three-part "Fossil Parade" series for Carnegie Magazine (1951), plus other articles, letters and interviews with museum staff.

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