For more than 100 years, the remains of 56 performers and roustabouts of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus lay at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park.
Some were known only by nickname, such as Baldy and Four Horse Driver, but most of the grave-markers are labeled “unknown male” or “unknown female.” Each has a number and the mass burial plot is called Showmen’s Rest.
Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the 1918 crash, which is one of the worst rail disasters in U.S. history.
At about 4 a.m., the circus train had come to a stop on the tracks in Hammond, Ind. Most of the train had switched to a different track, but four sleeper cars sat on the mainline. Everyone was asleep when an empty troop train came barreling at them from behind, traveling upwards of 30 miles an hour. Its engineer had fallen asleep at the throttle.
“When the troop train engine hit, it destroyed the caboose. They never found the guy in the caboose, and the troop train just kept going in and on,” said Ruth Mores, VP of the Hammond Historical Society.
The crash was so loud, a neighbor said he thought the steels mills had blown up. Those who weren’t killed on impact were buried in the debris of cars made entirely of wood. It became an inferno.
“The kerosene lanterns used to light the coaches spread over the lumber and started the fire. A lot of people were trapped. They couldn’t get out. They burned to death,” said Rick Haney, of the Showmen’s League of America.
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