Historic Structures

Dinosaur Park, Rapid City South Dakota

Date added: June 17, 2022 Categories: South Dakota Roadside Attraction

Settlement in the Black Hills began in the mid-1870s when confirmed rumors of the presence of paying quantities of gold incited a great gold rush. Much of the economic development of the region during the nineteenth century relied upon mining, ranching, or related activities. Rapid City, located at the eastern edge of the Black Hills, was founded in 1876 to serve as a commercial and transportation center. The city grew to be second largest city in the state largely due to the installation of nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base. In addition, from the 1930s on, many of the city's entrepreneurs nurtured a blossoming regional and statewide tourism industry.

In 1923, State Historian Doane Robinson conceived the idea of a roadside sculpture in the likenesses of western heroes somewhere in the Black Hills to attract tourists to the state. His intent was to symbolize the westward expansion of America and the growth of democratic ideals. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum expanded the idea to national figures. He chose four presidents, who played a major role in westward expansion. Both Robinson and Borglum were impressed with the bigness of the west and insisted that the sculpture be colossal in scale. Thus emerged the carving of Mount Rushmore in the east-central part of the Black Hills about twenty miles southwest of Rapid City.

The first dedication at Mount Rushmore took place on July 4, 1930 and by 1935, 200,000 people had visited the unfinished monument. These statistics were not lost on the promoters of Rapid City. Tourism had gone largely unnoticed prior to 1920, despite the few private lodges that had been built in the scenic Black Hills. By 1920 and the advent of the widespread use of the automobile, tourism quietly reached the position of the second largest industry in the state. Tourist attractions grew rapidly during the 1920s from tourist camps to motels to state parks. However, the importance of tourism to the state was not truly recognized widely until the proven success of Mount Rushmore and other ventures in the 1930s. Finally in 1937, the promotion of tourism and highway development were combined with the establishment of a state tourism publicity agency within the Department of Highways. One year later, U. S. Highway 16 between Sioux Falls and Rapid City, linking the two ends of the state, was completely oiled and improved.

The Rapid City Chamber of Commerce began to feel the effects of tourist traffic by the late 1920s and early 1930s. However, it was the Great Depression that inspired the Chamber to conceive of a project which would attract federal funding and create jobs for unemployed men in the area. The Chamber was eager to make the connection between one successful sculpture (Mount Rushmore) and their hopes for another. On February 27, 1936, the Rapid City Journal published an article entitled "Dinosaur Park Work Started," in which the reporter wrote, Dinosaur Park will be "a companion Black Hills attraction to the huge carvings of three great presidents on the granite slope of Mt. Rushmore."

Art historian Karal Ann Marling in her work The Colossus of Roads points out that America is covered with fanciful, giant roadside sculptures. Yet, like the monument to the presidents of the westward expansion, the dinosaur motif for the Rapid City project had some link to the region's history. Dr. C. C. O'Hara, retired president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, is credited with the original idea of the dinosaurs as the subject of the sculptures. O'Hara, a palaeontologist, was fascinated with the prehistoric dinosaur remains he found in the Badlands of South Dakota.

Another contemporary newspaper article shares the credit for the idea with R. L. Bronson, secretary of the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce. According to the Rapid City Journal on February 27, 1937, Bronson claimed to have conceived the idea "... when he visited the Chicago Century of Progress exposition and saw the mechanically operated reproduction of a Brontosaurus." Marling also expounds upon the connection between world fairs and colossal roadside sculpture. She writes that the heroically proportioned sculptures at the fairs "reflects the magnitude of the loss felt by Americans ... with the disappearance of a West whose distant horizon in the recesses of history.... only the sculpted eyes of art can still perceive."

Marling also explains the choice of awesomely large prehistoric animals. "Humor and fakery create situations that appear 'dangerous, horrible, or uncanny' and then disperse the sensation of terror with the sudden realization that the whole thing was a hoax." In the case of the ferocious looking dinosaurs, the sculptures were not so much a hoax as merely harmless, immobile concrete. Further, she states, American tourists love over-sized sculpted attractions. "America responds to the environmental aesthetic of surfeit, giantism, the colossal ...." Therefore, the dinosaur sculptures hit three nerves in the American aesthetic -- a sense of the history of the West, an enjoyment of things scaled larger than present-day life, and a sneaky enjoyment of being frightened. A local reporter described the appeal in other terms in a January 27, 1937, article entitled "Dinosaur Park Will Open in Hills Area on June 1." Dinosaur Park, he wrote "promises to become one of the most unusual and interesting projects of its kind in the world."

Emmit A. Sullivan, a lawyer and sculptor, became the designer and superintendent of construction in 1936. Under his direction, between fourteen and twenty-five men, worked on the project. A newspaper article dated March 3, 1936, indicated that Walter Walking, a WPA engineer provided engineering assistance. The actual building of the sculptures was executed by Frank Lockhart and George McGraw. Sullivan's design work was aided by Dr. Barnum Brown, curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who served as a consultant. Barnum furnished precise measurements for the animals. Because no palaeontological evidence existed in South Dakota for the Brontosaurus, he provided the specifications from the museum's fossil collection.

Originally, a set of dinosaur footprints were to accompany the animals, however, no evidence of them remains today. A February 27, 1936 article describes the footprints. "Adding to the naturalness of the final grouping will be actual footprints of dinosaurs which roamed the swamps ... Found some time ago east of Rapid City, the prints will be removed to the park and set in concrete slabs, Sullivan said."

Although all work was scheduled to be completed in April 1937, the project ran into difficulties. An article entitled "Tyrannosaurus Rex at Last Given Set of Teeth" pointing to these problems appeared in the Rapid City Journal on April 23, 1938. The article stated:

Work halted for several months by the Sullivan-WPA controversy. Sullivan resigned as project foreman last fall, which was all right with the WPA except for the fact he kept Rex's teeth -- made on his own time -- in his possession. Under persuasion of the Chamber of Commerce he released 24 tusks to the WPA, promising to complete and hand over the others later; but the foreman who replaced him refused to follow his directions for their insertion and Sullivan made no more teeth. The project was suspended. This spring he agreed to take charge of the work again as an employee of the Chamber of Commerce. A WPA crew was assigned to the project, working under his direction, and Sullivan brought his teeth out of hiding.

The park was dedicated on May 22, 1936 and a time capsule with the names of the all the contributing people was placed inside one of the dinosaurs. Finally, in early 1938 the chairman of the project reported that work was 95 percent complete. Presumably the park opened to the public that summer.

Once the park was completed, Sullivan and his wife opened a concession stand at the park. The building was moved from the stratosphere bowl outside Rapid City. In 1967 the Rapid City Journal reported that the concessions lease, held by Mrs. Lorraine Sullivan, was renegotiated. In 1968 the city received a federal grant through the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks for $18,203 for improvements to the park. These improvements included new retaining walls, terraces, handrails, and a concession building. The following year parking facilities and restrooms were added. Mrs. Sullivan retired from the concession business that same year. Dinosaur Park became an official city park in 1968.

Overlooking the city, Dinosaur Park remains a popular tourist attraction. The profile of the giant Brontosaurus is visible from many vantage points in central Rapid City capturing, at least for a moment, the attention of most visitors and local passers-by. The creatures set in concrete are extraordinary reminders of early tourism promotion and of early roadside art in South Dakota.