It was the widespread use of trains that finally got the circus business on track. But wild success also brought gut-wrenching tragedy and an unfathomable example of that now-famous “the show must go on” mentality.
In 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the third largest in North America, covering the turf just inland from P.T. Barnum’s east coast operation. It had 250 employees. Two 28-car trains hauled its gear.
Unlike wagon travel, which meant a circus took all day to go from one small town to another, railways were fast and efficient.
As the First World War was losing steam in June 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace outfit was traveling Indiana. Its two trains did an overnight run on Saturday, 22, between Michigan City and nearby Hammond.
The first carrying workers and animals made it safely, but the second had trouble with an over-heated axle bearing. Knowing the “hotbox” could start a fire, engineers pulled onto a sidetrack.
Since there wasn’t enough room for the last five cars, which were still on the main line, the circus posted workers with warning lamps, well ahead of the stop. Four of the exposed cars were wooden sleepers, nearly full…
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