Circus Trains: The Second Greatest Show on Earth

Ringling Brothers Advertising Car from an old postcard.
The advertising car went a couple of weeks ahead of the circus. It carried at least a dozen men and hung posters all over.

The circus and the circus train has always fascinated small children and grown-up railfans alike. Circus transportation has changed significantly in the last forty years. The circus itself has also changed. All the small circus shows have either “folded their tents” or changed to glorified stage shows.

The “big show” was and is Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. An unfortunate disaster in Hartford in the mid-1940s in which the big top caught fire almost put an end to it. A strike in the mid 1950’s brought an end to the use of the tent, and the shows have since been performed in arenas where the big top is not required. But the show goes on – by train. There are two show groups – the Red and the Blue. They alternate cities each year and are therefore revamped every other year.

Each unit has a complete train. A typical set might consist of twenty-six coaches followed by five baggage cars, a couple of bi-level auto carriers, and an assortment of a dozen flats carrying wagons, trucks and a bus. Each unit travels about the same route over a two-year period. The first year they travel the “small road” for eight-and-one-half months while the second year they travel the “big road” for eleven-and-one-half months. Stays range from a couple of days to ten weeks in New York City. The longer stays are on the “big road”.

The second greatest show – that of moving the circus by rail, begins even before the last performance begins. As the need for each item in the show is past, that item is loaded on the train. Each and every piece of equipment is loaded into the same box and the same wagon each time the show moves. As each load is completed, the wagon is coupled to others and towed to the railroad siding. Six hours after the show begins, the train is ready to roll.

The circus of today has changed a lot from the circus of only a few years ago.

When Ringling Brothers was still entertaining the public under canvas, exceptions were New York (Madison Square Garden) and Boston (Boston Garden, over the B&M North Station). Since the tent and its rigging were not required in these cities, they were played consecutively. Routing out of New York was over the New Haven to Worcester, Mass. where the trains were turned over to The Boston & Maine. Two sections were required. The first was wagons on flat cars while the second consisted of stock cars followed by a string of sleeping cars used by the performers.

The first pioneer in transporting a circus by rail was Dr. Gilbert A. Spaulding, an Indiana druggist and part owner of a small circus. In 1856 his circus traveled on nine railroad cars custom-built by James Goold & Sons of Albany. Adjustable axles on the cars compensated for any change in gauge between railroads. Other circuses moved by rail on occasion including the Dan Costello Circus which went to the West Coast almost as soon as the last spike was driven at Promontory Point in 1869. In 1871, William Coup, with support from P.T. Barnum, put together a show which would travel by rail. Until then the show had been hauled from town to town by teams of 600 horses. The idea was that the show could be more profitable if it skipped the smaller towns. The first move of Barnum’s circus was over the Pennsylvania. The only mishap was a camel who slipped off a runway.

Coup devised systems of his own for safely loading and unloading wagons elephants et al which are still in use today. He had envisioned the system of pulling wagons up a ramp and onto flatcars. His method involved use of crossover plates to bridge from car to car. He then chocked wagons into place on the train. This system of loading from the end of the train was an important departure from earlier methods of loading cars from the side. Since much of the current equipment was unsuitable, he ordered new. Coup had early difficulties because the cars he had rented were not uniform height and width. The brake wheels at the end of the cars were in the way and had to be remounted.

Coup and Barnum did not last because Barnum sold his name to several other shows at the same time. Coup came back with another railroad show called “New United Monster Shows”. Barnum teamed up with James A. Bailey in 1880. Their show was very successful as a railroad circus.

Barnum’s biggest rival, Ringling Brothers, didn’t take to the rails until 1890. When Barnum died in 1903, the Ringlings bought his circus but operated it separately until 1919 when the railroads were unable to provide all the trains required. At first the combined shows had 100 cars but later cut it to ninety by 1928. Later on, the Combined Shows used eighty cars. Of these, twenty-three were living quarters. Each employee, except stars and executives, had a 74 by 44 inch bunk and a foot locker. The show at one point utilized reconditioned government surplus hospital cars. A “glamour car” was a living car for girls only.

In the 1920’s, several shows came under the ownership of the American Circus Corporation. John Ringling bought out this company in 1929 and then controlled: Sells Floto (40 cars); Hagenbeck-Wallace (30 cars); Al G. Barnes Circus (30 cars); John Robinson (25 cars); Sparks Circus (20 cars); as well as the flagship Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey (90 cars).

The high point in railroad circus travel was 1911 when thirty-two shows moved by rail. Other circuses that once owned railroad cars and survived until at least 1950 were Polack Brothers, Clyde Beatty, Cole Brothers and Dailey Brothers. The James E. Strates carnival currently moves by train.

Because interstate laws restrict passenger trains to 20 cars, most circus sections were hauled as freight. Many times this resulted in seeing a caboose coupled to a passenger car. Space on circus trains was always at a premium, especially with the smaller circuses. The Clyde Beatty circus never used more than fifteen cars. His side show and concession equipment had to go by highway. Railroad rates were based on multiples of five. For instance, thirteen cars cost as much as fifteen.

The most important car in a rail circus was the flatcar. These were usually custom built double-length platform cars. Brake wheels and levers were on the side so that wagons could roll from flat to flat. The end cars of each cut of flats were fitted with hardware for the unloading ramps and referred to as a “runs car”. Loading gear was stowed under the cars in “possum bellies”. Because railroads charged for the number of cars, not the length, sixty foot cars were used for many years when the railroads themselves used forty footers. Later, showmen used seventy foot cars. Warren Tank Car Company and Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing built nearly all circus flats. Railroads never considered circus flats very useful for anything but their intended purpose – but ultimately they adopted the idea for the new long piggyback and rack cars.

Circus stock cars required modifications for all the vastly different animal species that rode them: camels, zebras, elephants, baggage stock (horses that pulled wagons) and ring stock (performing horses). Stock cars were long like the flats. The upper half of each side was slotted for ventilation. Ring stock rode in individual stalls. Baggage stock had no stalls and were packed tightly so as to minimize falls from rough starts and stops. The last horse aboard was called the “wedge horse” for obvious reasons. Ponies were often double-decked. Animals could be fed easily by a worker pulling a chain on top of the car and opening a feed bin.

Elephant cars required greater load capacity than the other stock cars. They were not slatted but instead had windows or ventilators. This is because elephants are in danger from cold and drafts. Roughly a dozen elephants could ride, chained in place, in an elephant car.

The circus didn’t just load up all at once after the close of the night show. Equipment used in the morning parade but not in the two shows was loaded early. The cook tent was packed up as soon as the late afternoon meal was done. The first section was out of town before the night show finished.

At least part of a car in each circus train was always akin to a club car/diner combination. It usually didn’t feed the circus as this was done under canvas. It only served short orders and box lunches. It served as a social center for the train. Circus people long ago named it the “pie car”.

Moving a circus train was tough on the railroads. Extra crews were required. Each section moved as a solid unit, which tended to speed things up as no switching was required. On double track or single track with Centralized Traffic Control (CTC), circus trains were some trouble because their timing was undependable. On a “dark” (no signals) track they could be most difficult. In addition, the older cars could be depended on to break knuckles, yank drawheads and develop hotboxes. Since the wagons were top-heavy and there were so many animals, the train could not keep the same pace as fast freights. Quality of the roadbed, particularly on branch lines, was a problem.

Unloading and loading a circus took some very specialized workers. The three most important were the poler, the snubber and the snub-rope man.

Some railroads were more popular with circus management than others. Originally, rates charged by railroads to haul circus trains were set individually. In 1920, rates began to be set on a regional basis. Santa Fe and North Western actively solicited circus business while Katy, Rock Island, Frisco and later Penn Central were very unpopular and discouraged the business. The circus general agent usually arranged railroad travel plans and attempted to develop a good working arrangement with the railroads. John Ringling, who also owned several short line railroads, was very adept at this.

A two-car show was just a smaller version of a regular circus as far as the actual show. The big difference was in the railroading. A standard railroad circus made special moves on its own schedule while a two-car show tagged on the end of a local passenger train (or a freight if no passenger was available). They were two-car shows because of the rule that anyone buying twenty-five first-class tickets was entitled to a baggage car as well. This unique venture folded in the middle of the Great Depression when branch line passenger service died.

Where to store the circus train has always been a problem. It can run to almost a mile in length. Employees and equipment need access to the show arena. In an average stop, the circus train gets one-and-one-half miles from where they perform. If the siding is within five miles, the train is left intact and equipment shuttled. This is the situation when the circus plays in Troy. Sometimes the nearest siding may be 20 miles away. In this case the train is unloaded close-by and then moved. This is the situation when the circus plays Glens Falls and stores the train in Saratoga.

The modern circus gets its cars from a variety of sources. Now that AMTRAK is the nation’s only passenger carrier, the circus buys old cars from them and customizes to fit its needs. Before AMTRAK, old cars where purchased from passenger railroads or from the government. The Ringling-Barnum circus purchased surplus hospital cars after both World Wars.

In 1919 the aerialist Lillian Leitzel demanded and received from Ringling Brothers an entire Pullman for her own use. A few circus owners like the Ringlings had private cars but usually executives had staterooms. The observation car on Tim McCoy’s Real Wild West train included two staterooms, bedroom, living room, dining room, kitchen and three showers. There were separate cars for married couples and for single men and single women. The fat lady, the giant, and the midgets slept in beds suitable for their size.

The Clyde Beatty Railroad Circus used four coaches in the 1950’s. In 1920 Ringling Brothers carried twenty-four coaches (out of 95 cars). By 1947, there were forty-one (out of one hundred eight). These were pretty much split amongst four sections of the train. The section a car ran in was evident from the number on the car (100 series cars were in the first section, etc).

The 1956-1960 period was one of transition for Ringling Brothers. When they brought down the Big Top for the last time, they came very close to going from a railroad circus to a truck show. They experimented using baggage cars plus sending much of the show over highways. 1960 saw a return to a revised railroad circus. It no longer needed to carry tents and seats. The new show now only needed to carry people, equipment and animals for the show. A new type of car – a tunnel car – was developed to hold wagons. The interiors and ends of four coaches were removed and cross-over plates installed. Since a flat tire inside the “tunnel” would be a disaster, the wagons had three wheels on each corner. Because the new train was “passenger” equipment, it was cleared to operate up to seventy-nine miles an hour. In 1969 a second train was added.

An advance advertising car and a 24 hour man went ahead of the circus. Now trucks or vans do this chore. The last advance car was run by Ringling Bros. in the 1955 season. The advance car moved on the same railroad contract about two weeks ahead of the show. It contained billboards and other advertising material. Larger shows had more than one car. The cars carried lithographers, billposters and bannermen. Bannermen hung huge canvas banners on high places like bridges and buildings. While the first car kept to a regular schedule, another car might specialize in “opposition” – hitting towns that were also playing a rival circus.

The 24 hour man came to town the day before the circus and checked on contracts, feed for the animals and hundreds of other details. One important function was to determine the direction the circus wagons should be facing when the train went on to the sidetrack.

The need to move advance men such as billposters ahead of the show as individuals on regular passenger trains was covered by “show scrip” which was purchased when the freight contract was signed. A book of scrip was worth $15 toward a passenger’s fare. Railroads usually had limitations on what trains scrip was good for. For instance, the New York Central did not honor scrip on the “20th Century Limited”, “Empire State Express” or “Southwestern Limited”. Scrip riders could carry up to 300 lbs of baggage and advertising material.

The circus general agent planned the train’s route. He was the transportation boss who had to know tunnel clearances, grades, mileage connections, etc. In planning the coming season, he had to meld geographic data, economic data, railroad data and personal knowledge. Usually, shows played familiar areas each year.

Circus train wrecks over the years have been serious. In 1882 Sells Brothers train at Louisville Kentucky broke a coupler. When the train slackened speed, the second part crashed into the first part. Tigers were rounded up with pitchforks. In 1893 in Tyrone Pennsylvania a wreck was caused by elephants shifting their weight. Many animals escaped. A tiger killed an ox and a farmer’s cow before being shot. Kangaroos were still in the nearby woods at least five years later. Ringling Bros. lost forty-three cars in a 1914 fire. They were able to scrape up enough other cars to continue the tour. On other circuses, a disportionate number of advertising cars and pie cars burned.

Circus World Museum at Baraboo, Wisconsin (the original Ringling Bros. winter quarters) has a collection of old circus rail equipment. They ran some on a July 4th trip to Milwaukee for several years. While the last authentic circus parade in this country was in 1939, the Schlitz Brewing Co. sponsored a re-creation as part of its “Old Milwaukee Days.” In the 1960s, this circus train was steam-powered by Burlington’s 2-8-2 No. 4960.

Lack of freight rail service into Manhattan doesn’t stop the modern circus. There is even sort of a parade. Animals walk through the Queens Midtown Tunnel at 1 am.

Circus trains utilized their winter quarters to refurbish their equipment. Barnum & Bailey’s winter quarters were in a large building in Bridgeport, CT. Eventually in 1926 the Combined Shows moved from Baraboo and Bridgeport to Sarasota, FL.

One of the most interesting experiences I ever had was watching the Ringling Brothers Circus arrive and set up. The circus was being held in North Utica. I think it was roughly where the New York State Thruway runs now. I had an excellent vantage point to watch from – my grandfather’s office on the top floor of Union Station. As was many times the case, the circus was late. Fortunately, it wasn’t late enough to jeopardize the start of the afternoon performance, but a young boy can get anxious waiting. Once the trains arrived, what appeared from a distance to be mass confusion, was really a well-organized team effort. Soon the “big top” was up and everything was OK.

See more great circus stories!


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