Who knew that Washington, D.C. once boasted its own (tiny) dinosaur bone dig site? The discovered animal was nicknamed “Capitalsaurus,” and the spot was officially named after it by the D.C. City Council—following a vigorous lobbying campaign from Smothers Elementary School students.
A commemorative street sign marks the spot where the bones were discovered in a clay bed back in 1898, during sewer construction. The Smithsonian Institution’s curator of vertebrate paleontology recounted later in life to the Washington Post how “workmen came upon some curious large bones and brought them to me. They were found about 45 feet down. One of the bones was a section of of the backbone and tail of a dinosaur.”
Yale paleontologist Richard Lull thought that the ancient bones belonged to a relative of Allosaurus, and named them Creosaurus potens in 1911. The Smithsonian’s Charles Gilmore referred them to Dryptosaurus, already known from Cretaceous-age fossils in New Jersey. Over the years it became clear that neither assignment was correct, and that the species potens had no real taxonomic home. In 1990 local paleontologist Peter M. Kranz suggested that it was from a dinosaur unique to Washington, and coined the unofficial moniker Capitalsaurus. It might have been a 40-foot long carnivore, but the materials are very fragmentary.
In 1998, a D.C. public school teacher named Julia Jones happened to hear about Capitalsaurus at a National Geographic event and thought that it would make a great civics project for her class of fifth graders. The kids swapped their school books for advocacy agendas and descended on City Hall as an army of junior lobbyists. The task was simple: name Capitalsaurus the official dinosaur of the District of Columbia, and vote “yes” on the Official Dinosaur Designation Act of 1998.
“We lobbied throughout this building for two hours, going from office to office, singing our song,” 12-year-old Ashley Coleman told the Washington Post. The vote proved an easy one for the sympathetic DC Council, and January 28th was designated as Capitalsaurus Day in honor of the date of discovery. The one-block stretch of F Street SE where the bones were found was also honorifically rechristened Capitalsaurus Court, as an eternal monument to the District’s most famous dinosaur.