From the Olympics to Dinosaurs!

Or how one family got from here . . . to here . . . in three generations.

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When much of the world was caught up in the 2013 Olympics, a friend sent me some links to articles about Olympics history since its revival in Athens in 1896, which had only 143 competitors from 12 countries. One of the Americans was a track-and-field competitor from Boston named Bill Hoyt. You can learn more about that here:

Professor Edward Hitchcock. Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Professor Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864). Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.

Hoyt is a family name with deep roots in the Connecticut River Valley. Edward Hitchcock, the 19th-century geologist and first scientific interpreter of dinosaur tracks, was a Hoyt on his mother’s side. He was particularly close with his Uncle Epaphras Hoyt, who encouraged young Edward’s scientific interests in natural history and astronomy. Together, they published a paper on astronomy, and the uncle supported his nephew’s desire to go to college. Originally, Edward’s heart was set on Harvard, but a case of the mumps — more serious in those days than now — made him reconsider his place in the universe, and he rejected the idea of Harvard, which had become Unitarian, and returned to his father’s conservative orthodox Congregationalism. He became a minister and several years later went to Yale for a few months, then took an academic position at the new Amherst College in 1825.

I wondered if Olympics gold medalist Bill Hoyt could have been a descendant of Epaphras or any other closely related family members. Checking through a Hoyt genealogy, I couldn’t connect Bill to any of the Deerfield Hoyts, but I had a better surprise. You know how your eye just picks up a detail you haven’t consciously looked for? It jumped out from the bottom of a page that a Charles Arthur Hoyt was working as a chemist and mining engineer in Georgetown, Colorado, in 1870. Whoa, that’s interesting, I thought, because George Everett Marsh, son of dinosaur track discoverer Dexter Marsh, was working as a surveyor and mining engineer in Georgetown at that same time. A little more poking around showed that Charles’s father was Arthur Wellesley Hoyt, son of Epaphras. Thus Charles was a first cousin to Edward Hitchcock, one generation removed.

Georgetown was barely scraping out its place in the wild Rocky Mountains and Colorado wasn’t yet a state, but two descendants related to the discovery of dinosaur footprints in the Connecticut River Valley were living there in the 1870s. I haven’t found out whether George and Charles moved out west together, but they certainly knew one another and might have worked together. Georgetown is also a mere 35 miles from Morrison, Colorado, where fossilized dinosaur skeletons were discovered in 1877, setting off the now famous “Bone Wars” between Othniel Charles Marsh (no relation to George and Dexter) and Edward Drinker Cope. Charles may have moved away by then, but at least George remained living not far from this other dinosaur fossil discovery. Did he ever go down to see the bones? Did he recognize their paleontological connection to the footprints his father discovered? Did he ever chew the fat with Arthur Lakes, discoverer of the Morrison Formation skeletons?

The actor Arthur Hoyt

Charles Hoyt married Josephine Briggs and they had two sons, Arthur, born in Georgetown in 1874, and Harry, in Minneapolis in 1885. If you have ever watched old Hollywood movies, you have probably seen Arthur Hoyt a zillion times. Starting in silents and continuing into talkies, he eventually carved out a niche for himself playing the milquetoast, the hen-pecked husband, the fusspot banker, the Nervous Nellie. I recognized him the moment I saw his photo. He made over 275 movies and worked regularly with a lot of big names: directors Preston Sturges and Frank Capra, actors Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, William Demarest, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Eddie Bracken, Charles Coburn, Joel McCrae, Claudette Colbert, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, even early Gloria Swanson, Fanny Brice, Rudolph Valentino — the list goes on and on. That is the company kept by the great-grandson of General Epaphras Hoyt, military historian, major-general in the Massachusetts militia, staunch citizen and proud descendant of the Puritan founders of Deerfield, Massachusetts. It’s hard to know whether Epaphras would have been pleased or appalled by his great-grandson’s life.

Arthur Hoyt as Professor Summerlee in the 1925 movie of The Lost World.

Harry, Arthur’s younger brother, was in the movies, too, mostly as a director. Arthur appeared in at least one of his productions, which happens to have been the first filmed version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dinosaur story, The Lost World. Wow. Seeing that blew me away. The film is dated 1925, thus only 13 years after Doyle’s story was published. It starred Wallace Beery as Professor Challenger and Bessie Love as Paula White, the love interest of Edward Malone (played by Lloyd Hughes, of whom I have never heard). Arthur played Professor Summerlee, a scientist. Here it is in action: a family’s fascination with paleontology tumbles down the generations, first as science, then as art — and even in art, it’s in the role of a scientist!

I have seen this version of The Lost World on DVD. It was somewhat slow, but I enjoyed it and am now eager to watch it again. The story takes place on a vast mesa deep in the jungle of South America, about as exotic a setting as an Irish Scottish Englishman such as Doyle could imagine, so distant in space, time, and familiarity that it could somehow seem feasible that dinosaurs would still live there, beyond the reach of the modern world — until the modern world determined to reach them. According to Wikipedia, Doyle based the site on the reports of a friend, Percy Fawcett, who went on expeditions to Bolivia. The Wiki entry notes that the region had “monstrous tracks of unknown origin,” a pretty apt description of the reactions of Dexter Marsh, James Deane, Edward Hitchcock, and all the townspeople who first gaped at the “bird tracks” (i.e., dinosaur footprints) in the sandstone of western Massachusetts.

Directorial credit is generally given to Harry Hoyt and Willis O’Brien, sometimes, curiously, to only one or the other without explanation. It appears that Hoyt was the director and O’Brien was responsible for the special effects, which he further developed a few years later in King Kong and the long career that followed. It is well worth a few minutes to take a look at the film clips on O’Brien’s Wikipedia page. In 1916, he was already making animated dinosaurs, only two years after the first animated dinosaur movie, Windsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). While Gertie is clever, O’Brien’s The Dinosaur and the Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy is a lot funnier, the special effects are a riot, and the quail looks pretty much like a therapod. The Ghost of Slumber Mountain (1918) is also there, and you’ll find a clip from The Lost World as well. I wonder if Slumber Mountain is the first filmed depiction of a battle between a ceratopsian and a tyrannosaur. It is apparently the first to use live and animated figures together. The smoothness of the animation surprised me, given the jerky motions of humans in films of the era. The creatures were made of armatures coated in rubber skins, with air bladders inside that gave the illusion of breathing. The effect is wonderful. The legacy of the “bird tracks” lives on, too: the narration mentions, in a way that now sounds quaint, “prehistoric birds and reptiles.”

What does this mean in the grand scheme of things? Probably not a lot, yet the story sparks the imagination. Maybe Charles Arthur Hoyt and George Everett Marsh were friends, despite the class differences of their origins. Or maybe they were uncomfortable at finding one another in the same little town so far from home, where perhaps each had hoped to stake out a new life free of reminders of the past. Maybe one was the other’s boss at work. Perhaps Arthur and Harry Hoyt heard stories from their father about his father’s cousin Edward, who wrote the first significant paper on the subject of dinosaur footprints. Perhaps, when they heard about the bones in the Morrison Formation — which they certainly would have, as it was very big news — they thought of Cousin Edward’s description of humongous birds and wondered how they related to the skeletons. In any case, they certainly were among the first generations of (mostly) boys who grew up dreaming of strange worlds teeming with gigantic reptilian beasts that thrilled their young imaginations.

From the time of the first scientific discovery of the footprints in 1835 to the first movie animations in 1914 was nearly 80 years. That the story can be traced through one family is remarkable. The footprints in the sandstone of western Massachusetts, although shockingly large to mid-19th-century observers, came from early dinosaurs that had not reached the mind-boggling sizes of the late Jurassic skeletons in the Morrison Formation. The tracks evoked an image of very big birds, impressive but probably not as terrifying as the huge reptiles with sharp teeth of Hollywood.

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