the golden years
This Page Last Updated on 02/13/2004
In 1881, William Cole developed the first combination of railroad cars and wagons designed and built for each other. The wagons were designed both for their loads and loading on the flat cars. The size of the equipment carried in the wagon determined the exact length of the wagon that carried them. Wagons were grouped to use the full length of each flat car. Small cross cages were developed that could be loaded side ways on the rail cars. This permitted the circus to carry a greater number of animals using less space on the train.
The five Ringling Brothers started their circus in Baraboo, WI, in 1884, as a wagon show, but in 1890, they made the transition to rail with the purchase of eleven surplus cars. By 1897, their circus train numbered 56 cars.
Railroad circuses proliferated and by 1911, the railroad shows numbered 32. The two largest of these railroad shows was the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Barnum & Bailey Circus. Each of these shows moved on 84 railroad cars. In 1919, these two great shows combined and it moved on 95 cars consisting of 46 flats, 27 stock cars, 24 coaches, and 3 advertising or advance cars. From 1923 through 1928, this train was made up of 100 cars (46 flats, 27 stock cars, 22 coaches, one dining car, one private car, and three advance cars).
In 1929, John Ringling purchased the American Circus Corporation which put him in control of six large railroad circuses and 235 circus railroad cars. The Great Depression brought a quick end to many railroad circuses and by 1933 only three shows were on the rails. By 1939, only two railroad shows were left. There was a resurgence to the rails following World War II and by 1945, six circuses were back on trains, but almost immediately lasted only one season and either went out of business or converted to trucks. Although Ringling was at 108 cars for a short time, it too dropped back to eighty. By 1956, there were only two railroad circus, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey as well as the 15 car Clyde Beatty Circus.
On July 16, 1956, John Ringling North announced "the tented circus is a thing of the past," and the RBBB Circus gave its last performance under canvas at the Heidelberg Raceway on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, PA. The tented circus was loaded on the circus train for the last time, taking three days to return to its winter quarters in Sarasota, FL. The show was redesigned to perform only at indoor arenas and on March 28, 1957, it departed Sarasota, FL, on fifteen rail cars consisting of three coaches, eight flats, and four stock cars and a fleet of trucks. But after its Madison Square Garden and Boston Gardens dates, it relied on its fleet of trucks and only three baggage cars. The only other railroad circus at the time was the Clyde Beatty Circus which continued to move on 15 railroad cars until the end of the season that year. The next year, it also transitioned to trucks and ended the traditional tented railroad circus.
Stock and Mt. Vernon flat cars of the 1936 Al G. Barnes Circus train. The flat cars were painted orange with silver letters.