By Ed Breen
Richard Lytle in his book published a dozen years ago, summed our story today quite nicely. On the opening page he wrote:
“In the cool, pre-dawn hours on a June night, a train engineer closed his cab window as he chugged toward Hammond, Indiana. He drifted to sleep, and his train bore down on the idle Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train.
“The Hammond Circus Train Wreck was one of the worst train wrecks in U.S. history,” he wrote. “In the subsequent wreckage and blaze, more than two hundred circus performers were injured and 86 were killed.”
Those are the essential facts, but there is so much more to it than that. The fact that most of those dead and injured lived right here in central Indiana, for instance. And that the circus show went on a day later in a Wisconsin town. And that Curley Brown, the circus’s sword swallower who survived the crash died alone in a Chicago flophouse 25 years later is today buried with his circus family in suburban Chicago.
Hard to appreciate today, but a century ago circuses and circus trains were a very big deal in America. And the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus that spent its winters up the road in Peru was the second or third largest in the country, right behind the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey extravaganza.
Not incidentally, the Circus City Festival and amateur circus will be held again this year in Peru the week of July 16 to 23.
But back to the June night 104 years ago in the railroad yard up in Hammond.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus traveled in two trains and they approached Hammond in the pre-dawn hours of June 22, 1918. They had completed their show in Michigan City, folded their tents and were to set up in Hammond the next day and then on to Monroe, Wis., the day after that. That’s how circus operated back then: Arrive at the railroad yard, unload the elephants and horses to do the heavy lifting and all paraded across town to the fairgrounds or a park or an empty field to set up for the next show which would dazzle and amaze children of all ages. Are you old enough to recall when we were still capable of being dazzled and amazed? But I digress.
The first train pulled onto the assigned siding in Hammond. The second train, which housed roustabouts, laborers, trapeze performers, lion tamers, clowns, management, ticket sellers and takers, cooks – everyone required to make the show – was being moved to spot near Gary for some overnight repair work. The last few cars were still on the mainline.
Just before 4 a.m., the 150 tons of an empty passenger train came down that mainline, blew right on past a signalman with a flare and plowed into the back of the train housing the sleeping circus family. Kerosene in lamps ignited, wood frame cars shattered and burst into flame and in seconds 86 were dead, hundreds were injured and one of the worst rail disasters in American history played itself in the night out at the south edge of Hammond.
Yes, animals and other trappings of the circus were lost also.
The injured were treated and the dead were assembled by the Lake county coroner. A few were identified by the living, but most were burned beyond recognition.
And here is the most endearing and redeeming facet of this tragic story:
All of the deceased were taken to the western Chicago suburb of Forest Park and were buried – each in his or her own casket — in a common grave dug for the occasion.
Fifteen hundred mourners lined the road to the cemetery and gathered around the open grave.
Later, headstones with the names of those who could be identified, if only by first name, were placed on the earthen rectangle of the mass grave. To this day, Showmen’s Rest is the focal point of Woodlawn Cemetery in that western Chicago suburb. It is so marked by five large stone elephants placed there by the Showmen’s League of America.
A man known only as “Baldy” rests there. So does “Smiley,” who is flanked by two others marked only as “Unknown Male” and “Unknown Female.”
The stone elephants that stand watch do so with lowered trunks because elephants, so the story goes, raise their trunks only when they are happy.