By Richard Howe
One day in the 1930s, a group of people were enjoying a beautiful day on the park grounds of central Calgary’s St. George’s Island. The group’s peaceful picnic was disturbed when a drunk man appeared and began to bother them. A park officer approached, and the man, sensing danger, ran away unsteadily. Pursued by the park officer, the intoxicated man just barely managed to navigate the park’s pathways. Then, suddenly, he stopped in shock, staring spellbound at the bright green dinosaur standing right in front of him. After a short pause, the man straightened up and turned around, heading directly for the park’s exit. As he exited the park, his strides were steady. The park officer abandoned his pursuit, deciding that the shock had sufficiently sobered the troublemaker.
If you have some doubts about this story, I don’t blame you, but The Calgary Daily Herald reported on the incident shortly after it was alleged to have occurred. And the part about dinosaurs on St. George’s Island, at least, is true. Back in the late 1930s, there were close to 20 different prehistoric creatures there, and by the 1970s, there were over 40. These life-sized concrete sculptures were part of the Natural History Park at the Calgary Zoo. All of them are gone now, except for one. By the time I was old enough to visit the zoo on St. George’s Island, I didn’t even know that the others had been there at all.
The story about the drunk man comes from the front page of the newspaper on August 28, 1937, in an article about the completion of the new “Dinosaur Gardens.” In the accompanying photo, three human figures gather around the feet of a giant brontosaurus sculpture, not even reaching the dinosaur’s knees. That dinosaur—120 tons, 10 metres high, 32 metres long—would quickly become known as “Dinny,” and over 80 years later, it is the sole surviving dinosaur sculpture still standing on St. George’s Island.
As a child growing up in Calgary in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember that Dinny held a special place in the hearts of many adult Calgarians. It was notable how often they spoke of their fond memories of visiting the zoo as children and of climbing Dinny as a rite of passage. The urban landscape changes quickly in Calgary. The preparations for the 1988 Olympics had recently transformed much of the city’s downtown. If being a dinosaur wasn’t enough, Dinny was special just because it was something from Calgary’s ever-vanishing past.
The suggestion for building a dinosaur park in Calgary is said to have come from zoo society member (and later zoo society president from 1959 to 1965) Lars Willumsen after he visited the dinosaur park in Tierpark Hagenbeck (Hagenbeck Zoo) in Hamburg, Germany, in 1934. The world’s very first dinosaur park had been built back in 1854, in Crystal Palace Park in London, England. A few other parks, like the one in Germany, had sprung up around the world in the decades since. One of the goals of these parks was to help the public to understand the emerging field of paleontology and its discoveries, and to provide this education in an entertaining way.
Work on Calgary’s Natural History Park started in 1935. Alberta had been especially hard hit by the economic problems of the 1930s, but despite a meagre budget, a determined group of people were able to make something that the city would be proud of for years to come. Sculptor Charles A. Beil, a well-known artist living in nearby Banff, was recruited to help design the first dinosaurs. He was aided by engineer Aarne Koskeleinen and sculptor John Kanerva, who helped to figure out the method of construction and ended up doing most of the physical work. Charles Mortram Sternberg, a paleontologist working for the National Museum of Canada (a precursor to the Canadian Museum of Nature), was provided by the federal government to consult and guide the project and to ensure that the representations were appropriate and accurate. Dr. Omer H. Patrick, founding president of the Calgary Zoological Society since 1929, spearheaded the project. When Dr. Patrick presented the park to the city, former prime minister R.B. Bennett was invited to give the dedication address. “It was his initiative, foresight and expenditure which made this thing possible,” Bennett said of Patrick. “He took the lead.”
The park turned out to be a great success and a popular tourist attraction. In 1952, one of the first-ever CBC television news broadcasts featured a story on the Natural History Park. When Scottish paleontologist Dr. William Elgin Swinton visited the park in 1957, he told stories of British service members who brought back postcards from the dinosaur park after serving in Canada during the Second World War. It became local legend that Dinny was the most-photographed object in all of Calgary. Dinny was made the zoo’s official symbol in 1959 and even appeared on the cover of an issue of Maclean’s magazine the following year. Until 1967, when the Husky Tower (four years later renamed the Calgary Tower) was built, Dinny was probably Calgary’s best-known landmark.
Today, near where Dinny stands, a bronze plaque commemorates the Natural History Park and the people who worked to create it. The names of Patrick, Willumsen, Sternberg, Beil, Koskeleinen and Kanerva are listed as founders. The plaque was unveiled in 1974 in a small ceremony near the park’s entrance. Dr. Patrick had died in 1947, but the five other men, most of them in their eighties, attended the ceremony.It was John Kanerva’s name that was mentioned the most. After the park and dinosaurs were built, Kanerva had continued to work at the zoo, making new dinosaurs and maintaining the originals. They became his life’s work. “Yes, John did most of it,” Dr. Sternberg said at the ceremony. Kanerva’s long association with Calgary’s beloved dinosaurs—and especially his role as Dinny’s sculptor—had made him a minor local celebrity. Sitting in his wheelchair as the plaque was uncovered, the 91-year-old smoked a thin cigar. He was surrounded by his family, friends and former colleagues, who applauded as bagpipes played. Many had been pushing the city for years to honour Kanerva and the other men with a permanent landmark, and Alderman Tom Priddle, who unveiled the plaque, apologized for the delay.
In 1975, the Calgary Zoo announced an extensive 10-year redevelopment plan. As Calgary had grown, so had the zoo and its reputation. With the goal of improving living conditions for the zoo’s animals, the decision was made to make room on St. George’s Island for new and expanded animal habitats.
This would be the end for the Natural History Park. However, owing to its popularity and history at the zoo, a new Prehistoric Park was planned just north of St. George’s Island, on the other side of the Bow River. The original plan was to move many of the original dinosaurs to the new park, in addition to adding some new sculptures. By this time, many of the dinosaurs, including Dinny, were showing signs of age and in disrepair.
The new park opened in 1983. While most of the plans for the Prehistoric Park were fulfilled, the dinosaurs were not moved, and they were destroyed at some point. However, new sculptures were indeed added at the new location. They were made of fibreglass this time, which would be easier to maintain, and their depictions were more modern, more in line with the public’s perception of what dinosaurs looked like. The original dinosaurs would have been difficult and costly to move and repair. A tough economic climate during development of the park had made sacrifice a necessity in order to ensure its completion. The dinosaurs were subject to the same boom-to-bust economic cycle as every other resident of Calgary, and in their case, they fell victim to it.
Dinny was thankfully—and perhaps literally—spared the wrecking ball. In 1987, at the zoo’s urging, the sculpture was made a provincial historical resource, protecting it as an important historical work. Along with Dinny’s new designation, the sculpture received some attention that year to repair some of the damage incurred over many decades.
In recent years, the Calgary Zoo has taken a renewed interest in Dinny. Structural work was completed in 2019, involving reinforcement of the neck and rear left leg. Surface restoration and repainting started in June 2021 and is set to be completed by the end of the summer.
There was a time when John Kanerva would repaint Dinny every few years, but I don’t know when the sculpture was last repainted. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Dinny with a fresh coat of paint. I’m looking forward to it. Dinny was meant to transport people to the past, to millions of years ago. But for me, I’ll be reminded of a much more recent time. Seeing Dinny looking once again like the pride of the city will be like visiting a Calgary I had always heard about but never got to know.
Richard Howe is a digital imaging technician in the Digitization Services Division at Library and Archives Canada.