Lenny and George
Certainly one of the highlights of my childhood was dinosaurs. In this regard I have nothing on the next kid, but what sets apart my youth was my access to the real thing, at least the full size replicas of the real thing. Smithsonian you ask? Field Museum? Archeologically inclined parents? No, but something even better. Prehistoric Gardens. If you will recall there was a time in America when people made things, big things to be seen by others. Things like Disneyland, and Freeways, and the Grand Canyon. Those days are long gone of course, but some of the artifacts still remain and Prehistoric Gardens is as good as it gets. Located somewhere between Port Orford Oregon and Gold Beach (my hometown) on the side of 101 is Jurassic Park before Jurassic Park. Guarded over by a 30 foot tall T-Rex and 60 foot tall Brontosaurus is the entrance to an old growth forest populated by 20 or so life size dinosaur recreations. I used to come up from Gold Beach once or twice a year and walk through the paths with giant ferns and ancient trees and at every turn discover a diorama of a dinosaur doing something. Sort of. They all sit rather stiffly staring into space, a shiny rain proof lacquer preserving them like fleshed out fossils. Struthiomimus, Dimetrodon, Diatryma, Archelon, Seymouria. These are some of the names of the creatures that will greet you. My favorite by far is Ichthyosaur. A 10 foot long razor nosed dolphin with giant crystal shaped eyes lying on it’s side in the middle of this forest. There is no doubt that there a comical element to this fish, but it’s still so cool. The thing is, when you walk through the park, they feel real, they come up on you unexpectedly. Surely there can’t be more, and then, bam, there’s a 12 foot tall Trachodon staring at you.
All of this is the brain child of David Nelson. On this trip I was VERY privileged to hear the history of the place. Nelson’s granddaughter Kiki now runs things. When she found out that I was an artist she told me she would bring out some of the old blueprints for the place. I don’t know what I was expecting. I don’t think I had ever thought of how these were created, they simply always existed in my mind. What I saw was (and I do not exaggerate) some of the finest draftsmanship and singularly focused creativity I’ve ever come across. Nelson hand designed every dinosaur in the park. From the presentable outside skin to the carefully engineered sub frames that kept them from actually falling over and attacking every kid who jumped over a fence to actually touch one. There is some heavy duty steel underneath all of the fiberglass, plastic, and mud. Every eyeball, claw, tooth, scale, and tail has been drawn perfectly. His work rivals anything out of Hollywood or Disney.
I got a little of Nelson’s back story. He made his living as an engineer, designing manufacturing equipment, before running a successful gravel business. Sometime in his early 50’s he decided to take his earnings and invest them in this dream. He and his wife moved from Eugene ignoring protests and criticisms that he was crazy, down to the middle of and Oregon coastal rain forest to start building this dream. Kiki says his brother’s laughed, but not for long. Nelson was driven and within a few years it started to come together. In it’s heyday during the mid 70’s (when I was living down there), cars would line up along the road during the summer. There were extra parking lots that filled up to capacity and people experienced the size, scale, and variety of creatures viewed through a 100 million year lens.
My first book on drawing was purchased from Prehistoric Gardens. A blue book on how to draw dinosaurs (it involved a lot of circles). Every time we visited I would get a souvenir, usually a small plaster dinosaur. I have 10 or so of these sculptures somewhere and they were among my favorite childhood possessions. Second only to Legos.
Prehistoric Gardens is still majestic, but unfortunately traffic is not at all what it used to be. This might be in part due to the fact that Nelson died in 99′ (months after completing his last dinosaur the Bradysaurus). His unique vision drove this place and although it can be preserved, it can’t be repeated, and people these days don’t tend to think in terms of roadside attractions. The more pressing reason is that traffic is literally down. Kiki said that highway 101 vacation traffic is significantly reduced in recent years. We can speculate on reasons for this, but the fact is without that immediate impact of seeing a T-Rex as you round a bend on the highway, there’s not much reason to trek down there just to see dinosaurs after a long week of downloading mobile apps and clicking links. I was there on a Thursday morning and there were a few cars parked in the lot, but hardly a crowd.
I don’t know what it takes to run an establishment like this, but I imagine that it’s challenging. It takes a lot to feed a Stegosaurus. I can only recommend that if you are traveling down south, try and make an hour for a little detour. Time does stand still sometimes.
Prehistoric Gardens does not have a website, but they can be found at
36848 Highway 101, Port Orford, OR
10-12 miles south of town on US 101.
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