It’s an old routine — ripped from that part in Jurassic Park when the Brontosaurus first appears on screen in glorious CGI — and I recite it every time I visit the Prehistoric Forest, an abandoned amusement park just off the side of US-12 in the Irish Hills.
“You’ve said you’ve got a T. Rex?”
“We have a T. Rex.”
They do have T. Rex, just not the sort that will try to kill Jeff Goldblum.
Closed since 1999, the park is a mess of half-destroyed fiberglass dinosaurs, a decaying volcano, and a long shed, which once served as the territory of a vandal who goes by the name Taxi Kabs.
“I remember coming here as a kid. I wanted to be a dinosaur,” he scrawled on the inside of the volcano along with his tag: TAXI KABS :). It’s the only message in the entire park with any substance. There are no FOR SALE signs or phone numbers posted anywhere to indicate ownership. Vines are creeping up the walls of the old snack bar, located in the parking lot.
It wasn’t always this way. The Prehistoric Forest opened in 1963 — alongside a still-operational old west town and now-demolished go-kart and waterslide park — to accommodate Detroiters vacationing in the nearby lakes. The park housed 15 dinosaurs, a caveman, and a woolly mammoth at its peak. A 35-foot waterfall and a smoking volcano as well as mock-up dig sites stocked full of fake fossils added to the park’s allure. A waterslide (now beyond disrepair) overlooked the whole park.
The dinosaurs (which by my count are hard to discern … there’s definitely half a Velociraptor still kicking around there) are the work of James Q. Sidwell, a former dinosaur expert at the Chicago Field Museum of Natural history. Sidwell also designed an accompanying Prehistoric Forest in Marblehead, Ohio, and Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia.
The Ohio park was the most interactive of the three: attendants issued visitors toy M 16s and encouraged them to “shoot” at the fiberglass models as a Jeep drove them through the attraction.
But the dino-park craze couldn’t last. The 1980s gutted tourism in the Irish Hills, and the park suffered repeated attacks from vandals. In the worst case, Saline High School students stole the caveman statue, along with three other dinosaurs, in 1985 and set them up on the front lawn of the school. Authorities returned the statues to the park.
Local students repeated the prank in 2010, this time dropping the caveman on top of a school in Onsted. School administrators called in construction vehicles to remove the mock-up, according to local reports.
After the 2010 incident, vandalism increased. The worst occured in Nov. 2012, when 13 high school students (along with two of their fathers) broke into the park while staying in the area for an annual weekend track meet. The marauders beheaded and dismembered the majority of the statues — many of which are still laid low.
Police were able to track the students down because security cameras on the trails photographed some of the students wearing varsity track jackets. Everyone involved was charged with trespassing and vandalism. (Nota Bene to the curious trespasser: The cameras have since been destroyed or removed. The only thing keeping you from the Prehistoric Forest is a fence surrounding the parking lot.)
Right now, the future is uncertain for the Prehistoric Forest. But hey, Jurassic Park has a line for that one too: “Life, uh … finds a way.”