Little Bits of History

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Posted in History by patriciahysell on June 22, 2013
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreckage

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreckage

June 22, 1918: At 3:56 AM a private train pulls into a railroad siding. The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace train stopped in order to check a hot box (an overheated axle bearing) on one of the flat cars. Behind the first train was a Michigan Central Railroad troop train. This train was moving 20 empty Pullman cars. Alonzo Sargent, the engineer of the troop train, fell asleep at the throttle. He was already suffering from a lack of sleep when he took some “kidney pills.” The lulling movement of the train caused the engineer to drift off.

Sargent missed the warning signals and his train, running at full throttle or about 35 mph, slammed into the stopped train. The stopped train was bringing the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, the second largest circus in the country, to town. There were ≈ 400 performers and roustabouts on the old wooden train. The impact of the troop train crushed the caboose and 4 wooden sleeping cars. The kerosene lanterns on board ignited the wreckage. It was the worst circus train accident in the US with 86 people dead and 127 more injured.

Many of those killed in the crash perished within the first 35 seconds. The fire spread through the train burning many of the bodies beyond recognition. On June 26, most of the dead were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois. A section of the cemetery, called Showman’s Rest, had been purchased by the Showman’s League of America only a few months prior to the accident. The area is surrounded by elephant statues depicted in a symbolic mourning posture.

Crowds had assembled nearby awaiting the circus coming to town and these people rushed to the scene of the crash. It took days for the wreckage to be cleared. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus cancelled just two performances – the one in Hammond and the one scheduled at their next stop in Monroe, Wisconsin. Competing circuses sent performers to help the bereaved troupe, believing in the adage, “The show must go on.” Alonzo Sargent was found to be the cause of the accident, but criticism was also heaped on the outdated, wooden circus train, as the deteriorated condition of the cars helped to spread the fire.

“This accident was caused by Engineman Sargent being asleep, and from this cause, failing to observe the stop indication of automatic signal 2581, and the warnings of the flagman of the circus train, and to be governed by them.” – finding of the Interstate Commerce Commission

“When I woke up this morning my girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’ I said ‘No, I made a few mistakes.'” – Steven Wright

“There are worse things than looking stupid. Sleeping through life is one of them.” – Laura Preble

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.” – William Shakespeare

This article first appeared at in 2009. Editor’s update: The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was founded in 1907. It was at that time that Benjamin Wallace (founder of The Great Wallace Show in 1884) purchased from Carl Hagenbeck (founder of the Carl Hagenbeck Circus in 1903) his eponymous circus and combined the two. Carl was born in 1844 and the running of the combined circus fell to Wallace. Carl sued to get his name removed from the combined venture but lost his case. This was not the only disaster to befall the circus. Just five years earlier, they lost 8, elephants, 21 lions and tigers, and 8 performing horses in the Wabash River flood. The circus was sold to others and changed hands as well as combined with a variety of other circuses. Eventually, it ceased operation in 1938 after splitting from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus former winter home in Peru, Indiana (birthplace of Wallace) is now the Circus Hall of Fame.

Also on this day: Deke – In 1844, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity is founded.
Burn, Baby, Burn – In 1969, the Cuyahoga River caught fire.
Sweden – In 1906, Sweden adopted a new/old national flag.

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