Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up and witness the final bow to what was once the greatest ride on Earth! The Circus Train! Not only have railroads proven well-suited for commuters and freight, but for over 140 years they have also been known to ease the transportation of massive animals and heavy equipment often for your entertainment. In fact, during the late 1800s, the term “railroad show” was synonymous with large circuses and carnivals. One of the largest and best known users of trains was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus (RBBX).
During the 1820s, there were approximately 30 animal circuses touring the eastern United States. These shows traveled nightly by wagon through muddied country roads. By 1872 the P.T. Barnum Circus had grown so large that they decided to only play at large venues, and to travel by train. They developed a system of ropes, pulleys, inclined planes and crossover plates between cars that, first used in 1872, was continued through more modern methods by the RBBX up until its retirement this year.
The RBBX circus trains were more than one mile in length and consisted of 60 railroad cars, which is the equivalent of 120 trucks. The trains consisted of stock cars for exotic animals, flat cars for heavy equipment, and coaches to the rear. No space went underutilized.
Stock cars were 72 feet long and of two basic types. One was designed for the horses and ring stock, and the other for the elephants, or “bulls.” The cars designated for bulls were about a foot taller than the others, with solid sides and small windows for ventilation near the top. The bulls were usually positioned in three pairs at each end of the car and another elephant could be loaded at the center. Thus, each bull car could carry 12 or 13 adult elephants. Stock cars were usually coupled directly behind the locomotive to help minimize jolting the animals, and were then followed in the consist by the flat cars which were the heaviest due to rides, wagons and other equipment. Finally, the passenger coaches brought up the rear of the train.
The circus had a very strict employee caste system that was apparent in the sleeping assignments onboard. Featured performers and key personnel were often assigned a stateroom or even a half or third of a car. Some of the larger shows had a private coach for the owner or star performer. Most of the circus coaches were filled top to bottom with bunks, and an individual’s assignment in the circus and length of employment dictated the assigned bunk. For example, a newcomer might be assigned a top bunk, while working men might be assigned two to a bunk. These cars were not air conditioned and many a circus worker chose to sleep on an open flat, beneath the wagons, on a hot summer night.
Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circuses traveled in two trains, the blue unit and the red unit, following an alternating two-year schedule to bring a new show to each location once a year. Up to their retirement, between 250 and 300 performers and other circus workers traveled on each of the two trains for more than 40 weeks each year. The Red train made its final run on May 7th this year, transporting its last show to Rhode Island. The Blue train followed suit two weeks later, on May 21st, with its final show in New York.
Although the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus no longer performs, other circuses still take advantage of the railroad for transportation. From circuses to lumber to coal and to people, America’s railroads have played a vital role in building, connecting, and even entertaining the country. Among all opportunities made possible by the railroad, who knows what could be next?