THE EARLY YEARS
This Page Last Updated on 02/13/2004
On April 18, 1872, at New Brunswick, NJ, William Cameron Coup developed the system of loading circus equipment on railroad cars that would be adopted by all railroad circuses and used through the golden age or railroad circuses and even by the Ringling shows today. The reluctant Pennsylvania Railroad provided the railroad cars for this venture. His method involved pulling wagons up a ramp located at one end of a string of flatcars and down the length of the train. He bridged the space between the cars with crossover plates and chocked the wagons in place on the train. Prior to this venture, when circuses had previously traveled by rail, the wagons had been loaded over the sides of each car. At Trenton, NJ, Coup rented sleepers for the performers and musicians and coaches for the workers. Although the systems sounds simple, Coup had significant problems in his endeavor. He found that the railroads did not have a uniform width and height for their cars; brake wheels were mounted at the end sill of each car which obstructed the wagons as they rolled from car to car. These brake wheels had to be removed in order to load and unload the train. With all the difficulty that Coup was having with the Pennsylvania Railroad cars, Coup took the final step in developing the circus train. He contacted an Urbana, Ohio, company (possibly the U.S. Rolling Stock Car Company) that built and delivered custom designed railroad cars to the circus at its Columbus, OH, performance date. These first circus flats were 32 feet in length. In Cleveland, OH, he purchased Palace stock cars. So, when the circus arrived at Columbus on June 28, their 65 car, brightly painted new circus train with uniform flatcars, a Wagner sleeping car for the performers, regular sleeping cars for the workers, boxcars for extra storage, and Palace cars for the livestock awaited them. The show could now travel 100 miles in a single night, avoid the smaller towns, and play only the larger cities which provided greater box office receipts. Not only did Coup create the railroad circus that would go basically unchanged for the next 100 or so years, but it inspired new developments in the railroad industry itself.
In 1873, William Cole put his one year old circus on rails with 35 railroad cars. This new show took the Union Pacific and Central Pacific to the West. It was the first circus to give both afternoon and evening performances in San Francisco. The Cole advance advertising car went south along the new Southern Pacific Railroad and had to wait for railroad construction crews to lay new track as it moved through Tucson and on to El Paso. In its 26 week season, this show had traveled 9,387 miles by rail. It had played in Galveston, TX, San Francisco, CA, and Marquette, MI., in only one season.
During this period of time, what is called a flat car today, was termed "platform car" which was a car with no sides or gunnels or "gondola," which had low, removable sides of stakes and boards rather than the permanent sides of the modern railroad car.
By the 1880's, modern circus trains of the day were using flats 60 feet in length. By contrast, the Robinson circus train still moved on 20 flat cars of 50 and 55 foot lengths as well as ten stock cars of 50 and 60 foot length and 10 coaches at 60 and 70 feet when it closed in 1911.