By Derek Smith
A short while ago I wrote a story on Camp Okawana which featured the adopted American Indian child of Edna O’Neil, Steve Shomin.
Steve’s tribal family traveled with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and performed in some of its Wild West Shows.
What I did not mention in my writing was that as it did not tie into the main theme of the story, back on June 22nd of 1918, this circus was involved in one of the largest train disasters in modern history.
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The circus had grown over the years to include hundreds of animals and almost 250 people involved in a variety of acts, from acrobats and equestriennes to clowns and lion trainers.
To facilitate the movement of all the equipment and performers, the circuses used trains. It was a much more efficient way to move this large entertainment enterprise from town to town.
Traveling with wagons on mud roads at a top speed of 10 miles per hour was not going to get the circus to its many destinations planned over the short summer season.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were some 100 circuses, a third of them traveling on America’s railroads.
The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus grew to include 2 trains of 28 cars each.
The circus had completed 2 shows in Michigan City, Indiana and was traveling to Hammond for a show the next day.
The first train made the short 40-mile trek and arrived safely in Hammond, carrying mostly animals and circus workers.
The second train, carrying the circus performers, had developed a hot box and stopped its progress to fix the wheel bearing, which could otherwise cause a fire on the train.
At 4 am, the train pulled off the main line onto the nearest siding, but 5 cars remained on the main track, including 4 wooden sleeper cars.
An empty troop train used to transport soldiers to the west coast sped down the main line ignoring several stop signals and the lanterns of several circus workers, attempting to halt the progress of the incoming Pullman cars.
The heavy steel train hit the tail end of the wooden sleeper cars at somewhere between 20 and 60 miles per hour, splintering the wooden cars into match sticks.
The collision’s sound was said to have awakened area farm families who went to the scene to offer assistance.
The kerosene lanterns used to light the train’s hallways erupted ablaze in the aftermath of the crash. Some people were trapped and burned alive in the wreckage.
There were over 100 injuries and 86 people killed in the accident, including the wife and 2 sons of chief clown Joseph Coyle.
53 of the deceased performers were buried in a large plot in Woodland Cemetery in Chicago.
Only 5 victims had marked graves since the rest of the deceased were too badly burned for identification.
More than 1500 mourners came to the funeral to pay their respects. A stone elephant marks the graves with its trunk drooping in sorrow.
The cause of the crash was never actually determined with lots of finger-pointing, but nobody actually shoulders the blame.
In my humble opinion, it was a rail system overworked by the needs of the war, coupled with the increased freight and passenger requirements that were booming during the early years of 1900.
When you calculate in less than adequate rail routing equipment too few tracks and undertrained employees, you are certainly setting up for more accidents somewhere down the line. (excuse the bad pun)