The Prehistoric Forest Amusement Park is an abandoned eyesore in 2019. But in its heyday, the park was a popular tourist destination.
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In the 1920s, the Irish Hills area of Michigan, located between Detroit and Chicago, was a popular local and regional vacation spot. There were many campsites, summer homes, and cabins spread through the area, perfectly poised to take in the beautiful scenery and kettle lakes in the area. Tourist traps started popping up in the 20s when US Route 12 was paved. Traffic waned during the Depression and aftermath of World War II, but began to flourish again in the 60s, which is where we pick up today’s topic.
The Prehistoric Forest Amusement Park
US 12 is called “Michigan’s Forgotten Highway” in some circles, and many abandoned attractions now rest alongside the highway where car traffic was once booming. Emblematic of the decline of these roadside attractions is the “Prehistoric Forest” amusement park, which opened alongside route 12 in 1963. The park boasted a large manmade mountain and waterfall, visible from the road to attract passers-by.
The park covered fifteen acres.
- A safari train (really a tram) through the woods past 35-70 different dinosaurs and other sculptures.
- A walking tour through the same area with more details on particular dinosaurs.
- “the land of the leprachaun”, a transitional space showcasing traditional legends from the early Irish settlers of the area; there isn’t much information known about this area.
Dinosaurs at Prehistoric Forest
The dinosaurs and other figures were sculpted by James Q. Sidwell, a dinosaur expert formerly from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. He also made dinosaur sculptures for “Prehistoric Forest” in Marblehead OH and “Dinosaur Land” in White Post VA, as well as a number of other dinosaur, nature, and zoo-type attractions.
They were crafted out of fiberglass and had vibrant paint schemes with simple details, though some visitors didn’t find them very realistic, saying “A ferocious, yet completely unidentifiable species of dinosaur stares out at US–12 from the ruins of Prehistoric Forest. . . . The amusement park featured. . . mountains, forests, tar pits, dinosaurs, mastodons, and cavemen constructed of plaster, wire, concrete and whatever other materials were available — all with little or no regard for historical accuracy.”
Even in the early days, the dinosaurs had a menacing air, exactly as one might want from a life-sized dinosaur sculpture. Some visitors in the heyday of the park described the experience as “scary”.
Others enjoyed the experience in a different way: “I remember my anticipation as we drove up US–12 and the heads of the strange, giant dinosaurs came into view above the treetops. My brothers and I shoved each other out of the way in the back seat of my parent’s Ford Explorer to get a better look. These dinosaurs were wacky, fun, and totally unreal. We saw real dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum. These were different, friendly. Absolutely unintimidating.”
Attractions at the Prehistoric Forest
An early advertisement for the park read as follows: “The safari train takes you under Irish waterfalls where thousands of gallons of water pour from its rock ledges to the lost river basin below. The safari continues on through the time tunnel into the world of long ago where you’ll meet the giant dinosaurs face to face! Bring the entire family! Thousands enjoy the main interesting, educational, and awe-inspiring exhibits at Prehistoric Forest, land of the giant dinosaurs.”
In the 1980s, mini-golf, a fossil digging pit, a smoking volcano, and a locally famous 400-foot-tall “Jungle Rapids” water slide were added. Admission at this time was $2.75 adults, $1.75 kids. Some sources also note that there may have been a go-kart track and other small tourist attractions, as well, though details on these attractions are slim.
Decline for the Prehistoric Forest
Despite these additions, the popularity of the vacation and tourism industry in the area waned in the 80s and 90s. Interstates re-routed the traffic between cities, and as in the movie Cars, it became about making great time, not necessarily “having” a great time along the road. Travellers headed instead to larger regional amusement parks, casinos, and other larger-scale attractions. Small roadside tourist attractions, including the Prehistoric Park, continued to decline in popularity as relics from a different era.
Prehistoric Park was sold to new owners in 1997, but couldn’t hang on.
The closure date for the park is a source of confusion: either 1999 or 2002 are the given dates. The correct closure date is August 2002.
I was a tour guide there from 2000-2002. In fact, I was there for the last tour in August 2002. No, the park didn’t close in 1999. That’s when the last owners to actually run it took over.— Pinku Sensei (@pinkusensei) June 18, 2019
The park was listed for sale, and has remained vacant in the 20 years since.The listing price varied as the property stayed on the market, and was listed as over $548k in 2010. In 2012, the property was finally purchased in a cash sale for $399k by one Sandra Crabb, who hoped to fix up the park. Quoted in a local paper at the time, the local realtors said that there had been plenty of interest in the defunct park over the years, but that financing was hard to come by for most people for that project.
Vandalism and Abandonment
Even while the park was open, as early as the 70s, the dinosaurs were a popular vandalism target for local high schoolers. In one incident in 1985, three statues, including a neanderthal man, were stolen from the park and placed in front of the local Saline High School.
After its closure and abandonment, the park became a haven for bored teenagers, nostalgic adults, and urban explorers. Sculptures were often rearranged around the park grounds; on some occasions, sculptures were moved off-site by casual vandals. For instance, in 2010, some of the same figures were taken from the park and found on the roof of a school in Onsted. Heavy equipment had to be called in to remove the statues.
Of course, there were other, less friendly folks interested in the site. In November of 2010-2012, more harmful acts of vandalism occurred. Many of the figures were damaged, knocked over, decapitated. Limbs and heads of dinosaurs were smashed off. The owners realized a pattern with the damage occurring during the same weekend each November; the park’s owner installed motion-sensor cameras around the park to catch the culprit in the act. It turned out to be a group of students and two adults, in town from various local schools for a track meet. Several of the students wore varsity jackets which were caught on the cameras, allowing for identification of the suspects. Charges of trespassing and vandalism were pressed.
Despite all this activity, word on the street is that the park is a little bit haunted – a little too eerie, even in the daylight. Some of the few remaining dinosaurs are said to have moved without anyone visible on the security cameras. “The lights come on in the building, on and off, the animals move on different positions,” Jeff Paterson said. He’s the chief of police in Cambridge Township, Michigan.
Visitors in the late 2010s describe the area as a “ghost town”.
The site looks like a scene out of Jurassic Park: trees in the middle of what should be manicured lawns, a paved drive in front of a decaying visitor’s center, and overgrown flora everywhere. Though the site is easily accessible from US-12, the paths off the main lot are covered in decades of weeds, leaves, and fallen brush.
Of course, there are the dinosaurs. A mammoth lies on its side, tusks broken off. A brontosaurus, faded but whole, looks over the top of a fake palm tree. Many dinosaurs lay broken and limbless among the weeds. Some are rusted, paint flaking after the years without maintenance to a frightening effect. The sculptures had strange eyes and vacant stares even when the park was open; now, after every year of decay that has been photographed, the effect is worse.
Human-shaped sculptures, once Neanderthals or lone rangers or faerie folk are now interchangeable empty figures, most without heads or clothes, many draped in cobwebs and tangled foliage.
In the middle of some trees, the creepiest of the park’s dinosaurs stands mostly untouched by vandalism. A grinning T Rex dinosaur with a hinged jaw; mold and water damage staining his faded green facade, arms ending in stubs. Even in the middle of the day, this one is sinister and unsettling.
Only a handful of statues remain in the park now, remnants of a bygone age.
In fall of 2018, the Cambridge Township, where Prehistoric Forest park was located, held a “dangerous structure” hearing regarding the abandoned park. They called the crumbling waterfall mountain structure an “attractive nuisance”, something that was going to cause problems. They pointed out its exposed wiring, lack of fences around the park, the escalating number of trespassers and vandalism, and asked for fencing and repairs; if repairs would not be possible, demolition would be the solution.
Looking at the Google Maps street view for the park (8203 US 12, MI), it’s clear why the property is so attractive for trespassers across the ethical spectrum. This is literally a roadside attraction: the crumbling waterfall mountain and several of the dinosaurs are clearly visible from the road, just past a small parking lot and a tumble-down split-rail fence. No chain-link fence is present, and while security cameras are said to be present, they are obviously not much of a deterrent for trespassers and urban explorers.
An Attractive Nuisance
Sandra Crabb, the current owner, purchased the park because she believed the property to be an experience worth saving. She described the park as having “a mystique”, something like “a Mayan ruin”.
When asked for comment on the township’s requests to the local paper, she said the following: “We don’t want to willy nilly start ripping things down without a plan,” she said in the telephone interview to the local paper. “By asking me to just rip stuff down, that in essence is going to damage the memories of the property. Prehistoric Forest is a beloved entity.”
The Cambridge Township gave her until December 31st, 2018 to demolish the structure or present plans for preserving it.
Crabb did not comply with the township’s request by the deadline.
Request for Demolition
A hearing was set for mid-February 2019, “to find out why she hasn’t complied”. Crabb attended the hearing (though she was twenty minutes late) but did not present any plans for the township. “She had nothing (to offer) other than claiming its value, that it was an Irish Hills icon and should not be torn down,” said Rick Richardson, the township clerk, in an interview with the paper.
The committee unanimously voted that the mountain/waterfall structure needed to be demolished, and told Crabb she had 60 days to take care of it, or else they’d demolish it themselves and bill her for the demolition, estimated between $35-60k.
In an interview with the local paper, Crabb seemed unphased. “I am not convinced the conversation is over,” Crabb said. “We’ve secured the border around the property, particularly the entrances and exits. For me, it’s just the beginning of the conversation.”
The sixty-day deadline was April 13, 2019, which has come and gone. At the time of this post, there have been no updates one way or another as to the state of the Prehistoric Forest’s mountain/waterfall structure, which is continuing to decay against a background of new spring flora.
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I’ve included a complete list of references used while researching this topic. It’s hidden under the link for brevity.