Saturday, April 4, 2020

Book Review | The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918: Tragedy on the Indiana Lakeshore

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Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

That this is a man-made disaster, there is no doubt. There was no wash-out of tracks, no crumbling hillside, no raging rivers forcing bridges to collapse. It was human error, 100%. An engineer fell asleep at the wheel (was it a wheel? It has suddenly occurred to me that I don't know how trains are steered, but I don't care enough to look) and due to his negligence, his speeding train plowed straight into a train idle on the tracks. This resting train belonged to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and in the aftermath, the tragedy was massive. Eighty-six people were killed, with another two hundred+ injured. However, part of that 100% human error belongs to the Hagenbeck-Wallace company itself. Long after steel cars had become the norm for trains, the circus continued to travel by wooden rail cars. Due to the wreck itself (caused by Engineer Sargent), and the fire that erupted as a result (which burned hot and fast, thanks to the wooden cars), it became nearly impossible to identify all the victims. Most were laid to rest in a mass grave in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Chicago.

The author has done an excellent job in locating as much information and detail as possible. He not only tells the story of the tragedy itself, but weaves in the story of circus entertainment itself. I personally do not enjoy the circus (though I did as a child), but it was interesting to see how these shows developed and grew, and ultimately failed, or merged with other shows, as interest waned and up-keep costs became astronomical.

The author did his research in both areas, and it shows. This is a fairly factual account and you will not find a narrative here, if that is your preferred way of digesting non-fiction. I enjoy both, so I found this to be highly informative and engaging. By only real complaint is that I wish there had been more from eye-witness accounts, though one must consider the era that this accident occurred in and why such interviews are not available - either they never happened, or are long gone after being cleaned out of a dusty storage space in a basement somewhere. Still, I would think there must be family members who had heard the stories and passed those down, and I think those accounts are worth attempting to locate. That's not to say the author didn't. Perhaps there simply are none.

As usual, I have a few quotes that I found of interest that I would like to share...

"Considering that the show traveled from one performance location to another every day of the week except Sundays, the entire system had long ago been developed into a fast, efficient and profitable routine. In fact, it was so fast, efficient and profitable that, in later years, the United States Army would go an study the different methods circuses used in order to develop the procedures needed to move large mechanized forces on military campaigns" (31%).

"Only thirteen of the fifty-six bodies had been identified, which meant that the other forty-three had been burned beyond recognition. Among those identified and buried there were Arthur Dierchx, Jeanette Roderick Barnett and her sister, Mary Roderick (commonly billed as the McDu Sisters), and the three members of "Big" Joe Coyle's family who died in the wreck" (78%).

"The 1920 tour saw the Hagenbeck-Wallace hitting the railways in new seventy- and seventy-two-foot steel rail cars. It would be quite some time before the other three circuses owned by the corporation also got rid of their wooden rail equipment, but never again would the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus be involved in a deadly railroad accident" (80%).

"But the Hagenback-Wallace Circus did not disappear - yet. Owned by Ringling, it continued operating until 1936. It was not the only fatality of that year. John Ringling, Bert Bowers and Ed Ballard also died in 1936, and with their passing, the Golden Age of circuses died too" (82%).

"It certainly is an empty place now. There is no monument, no marker and no cross, and except for those old connecting rods, there is nothing to identify it as the once-upon-a-time place where so many died. Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck" (87%).

That last line in particular really got to me. I get that train wrecks were super common in that era, but it seems so strange to me that there would be nothing there to park this sad place - especially because so many of the victims were not even able to be identified. There should be some kind of marker to let them know they are not forgotten.



  1. I love circus stories more than I enjoy going to the circus. Wait, are there even any left?

    1. I enjoyed circuses when I little because I was always amazed by the various acts, especially trapeze and such. But as I got older I didn't like them because the animals looked so sad. I don't know if any traditional circuses operate anymore when that bill went around about not being able to use animals. I think it was 3 or 4 years ago that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus ceased performing for good.


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