PaleoLab

How Tyrannosaurus rex Came to Pittsburgh

Barnum Brown discovers T. rex

Barnum

Decades before Hollywood dreamed up Indiana Jones, Barnum Brown personified scientific adventure. Considered the greatest dinosaur hunter of the early twentieth century, he had a sixth sense for finding fossils—it was said that he could smell them!

The story of the discovery of Tyrannosaurus rex begins in 1902 with a paperweight on the desk of a friend of Brown. A souvenir from a Montana hunting trip, it was an unusual tube-shaped rock. Brown immediately recognized the ancient desk accessory as part of a Triceratops horn. It led Brown to go prospecting where it was found, in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation.

When Brown arrived at the site, he soon came across a hip girdle, hind limbs, and a few backbones of a huge animal. The significance of his discovery wasn’t immediately known, as large predatory dinosaurs were mostly unknown to science. Brown’s crew returned to the site in 1905 to claim their beast. The animal was so huge that it took two summers to excavate, using dynamite to unveil large stretches of bone.

The dinosaur bones traveled by railroad back to American Museum of Natural History in New York City. There, it took several years’ work by a large staff to remove the bones from rock. When the dust settled, much of the animal’s backbone, ribs, hipbone, hind limbs, feet, and arm bone were revealed, but not the tail.

Henry Fairfield Osborn, Director of American Museum of Natural History, dubbed the dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex, “the tyrant king of the lizards.” The giant carnivore was immediately a hit with the public. Its toothy image appeared in newspapers across the country. Reporters wrote about the monster who “munched giant amphibians and elephant a la naturel.” Osborn's initial description of the dinosaur—ferocious, upright, and tail dragging—inspired the appearance of the creature that was embraced by generations.

Brown kept looking for T. rex at Hell Creek and found more Tyrannosaurus bones in 1907, and a more complete specimen in 1908. This find included a perfect skull and jaws, backbone, ribs, hipbone, and nearly all of the tail, but no limbs. Together, the two skeletons provided a nearly complete skeletal picture of Tyrannosaurus rex. Since then, about a dozen T. rex skeletons have been found.

New York's Loss, Pittsburgh's Gain

rex
T. rex in the tail-dragging pose it held for decades, before being mounted in a new, scientifically accurate pose in 2008

While Tyrannosaurus rex is the dominant player in Dinosaurs in Their Time, it wasn’t an original member of the team. It was actually acquired from New York’s American Museum of Natural History.

It is often mistakenly assumed that Tyrannosaurus rex came to Pittsburgh as a war refugee. As the story goes, the American Museum shipped the dinosaur to Pittsburgh because they were afraid it might be damaged if New York City were bombed.

Actually, negotiations for T. rex’s relocation to Pittsburgh had begun in January of 1941—nearly a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Andrey Avinoff, Director of Carnegie Museum at that time, purchased the T. rex skeleton as an addition to the museum’s dinosaur hall of fame, thanks to a generous donation from Museum Trustee George Hubbard Clapp.

In New York City, each bone was labeled with its placement in the skeletal scheme. Flour paste and burlap strips were applied to protect the thin bones. The bones were then transported by truck to Pittsburgh.

Tyrannosaurus rex arrived safely in Pittsburgh in 15 wooden cases and four paper cartons, for a grand shipping total of $108. The giant was reassembled and took its place as the sentinel of Dinosaur Hall in 1942, a position it plays to this day.

The Journey to Pittsburgh

Sure, dinosaurs are exciting, but it takes a lot of hard work to get them into a museum!  Letters and memos flew back and forth between New York and Pittsburgh while T. rex was finding its new home. Follow T. rex's voyage from American Museum of Natural History in New York City to its new home at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and learn the details involved in shipping a dinosaur 380 miles! 

January 9, 1941
American Museum of Natural History's Barnum Brown makes an offer

January 15, 1941
Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Andrey Avinoff responds to the offer

June 26, 1941
American Museum grants permission to sell the specimen

June 28, 1941
Avinoff confirms meeting to discuss Tyrannosaurus

September 30, 1941
American Museum starts packing the specimen for shipment

October 22, 1941
Brown offers to include the bases and mountings

October 24, 1941
Specimen will be ready sooner than expected; Brown provides estimates

October 31, 1941
Specimen is ready to ship

November 4, 1941
Avinoff accepts bases and mountings, discusses payment

November 6, 1941
Brown accepts payment, provides dimensions for shipping crates

November 17, 1941
Brown specifies how specimen will be shipped

November 21, 1941
Avinoff contacts the trucking company, North Braddock Motor Lines

November 24, 1941
North Braddock Motor Lines confirms shipment

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