On a late August day in 1966, bulldozer operator Edward McCarthy was excavating a site for a new state building off West Street in Rocky Hill.
Turning over a slab of sandstone, he was taken aback. There in front of him were six large, three-toed fossil footprints. These weren't the tracks of a warbler. Whatever creature made the tracks, it was big.
Word spread quickly, the discovery hit the newspapers, and within three days, excavation stopped. Scientists, led by the late Joe Webb Peoples of Wesleyan University, realized they were dinosaur tracks and that they were of extraordinary quality.
And there weren't just six; there were hundreds on a massive rock slab, incredibly well preserved.
Within two years, the area became North America's largest exhibit of dinosaur tracks displayed where they were found. It is now known as Dinosaur State Park.
``Absolutely world-class,'' says Nicholas G. McDonald, a geology instructor at the Westminster School in Simsbury and an authority on Connecticut River Valley fossils. ``There is nothing in the East that matches Rocky Hill.''
Instead of digging up slabs of rock with the embedded prints and placing them in a museum somewhere, the museum was brought to the exhibit. A geodesic dome was plunked on top of about 500 of the 2,000 footprints that were uncovered.
That the tracks were discovered on state land was most fortunate. ``If it were on private land, things would have been chopped up and sold,'' McDonald said.
Dinosaur State Park is well worth a visit, even if the domed exhibit hall creates a museum atmosphere that inevitably institutionalizes the discovery -- which even today is a startlingly fresh and graphic demonstration of the long and varied history of this land. That is, if footprints 200 million years old can be said to be fresh.
The centerpiece of the exhibit hall is, of course, the tracks, which are viewed from a walkway just above the exposed sandstone slab. You are close enough that the prints, some of them a foot in diameter, are easily seen with the naked eye. They are a tangible -- though you can't touch them -- link with a long-ago epoch in Earth history, a time when the Connecticut climate was more tropical. Flying reptiles fed on huge dragonflies; the forest was dominated by tall, cone-bearing trees.
Through this environment, which is re-created in murals and exhibits surrounding the tracks, walked a dinosaur thought to be a ``moderately large'' theropod, a creature of the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods characterized by short fore-limbs.
Exactly what it looked like is not known, because bones have never been found, but scientists say it had to be similar to a dinosaur known as dilophosaurus. It walked upright on its hind legs, and it was a meat-eater. A life-size model of dilophosaurus is on display next to the tracks.
``It is the only thing that matches our tracks,'' said Richard L. Krueger,a geologist and the park's environmental education coordinator. ``It's a pretty good match.''
As you follow the ramp through the exhibits, watch for the fossil fish display, drawing from McDonald's impressive collection. One of these is a near-perfect impression of a species known as semionotus, described as the most common fish in the Connecticut Valley during the early Jurassic. These fossils are abundant in the black shales of the valley.
Visitors will find a gift shop stocked with almost every imaginable dinosaur product, from dinosaur socks and T-shirts to stuffed dinosaurs and dinosaur puzzles and games. On the grounds are a picnic area, more than 2 miles of nature trails with a foot-friendly crushed-gravel surface, and an area where visitors, during warm weather months, can make a plaster cast of a dinosaur track. You must bring your own materials.
The park for some time has been awaiting state funds for an addition to the exhibition hall that would allow for more exhibits, including relevant exhibits circulated by other institutions, such as the Smithsonian Institution. The Department of Environmental Protection's state parks office is seeking money to update a set of now-dated expansion plans before proceeding.
Friends of Dinosaur State Park, a private group that spends about $7,000 a year on park improvements and whose members donate hundreds of hours of volunteer time, is among those eager for the expansion.
In fact, its president, Robert A. Backus, would like to know why the state can't display all of the footprints discovered. Most of the tracks were reburied because the cost of exhibiting all of them was considered prohibitive, and the tracks would have deteriorated from the elements if left uncovered.
``We could have the world's largest collection,'' Backus says. ``But three-quarters of them are buried.''Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times