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Train Equipment

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rail equipment

This Page Last Updated on 02/14/2004

Since the railroads charged the circus by the number of cars moved, not the length or weight, the shows' ownership built longer car lengths of 50 feet, then 60 feet, and 72 feet.  It cost the circus the same amount to move ten 40 foot cars as it did to move ten 60 foot ones.  The modern Ringling show uses flats of 85 foot length.  In the heyday of the railroad circus, two companies emerged as the primary suppliers of circus flat and stock cars, the Warren Tank Car Company and Mount Vernon Car Manufacturing.  The circus train coaches were used equipment purchased from the railroads.  In 1923, following World War I, and again in1947, after World War II, the Ringling Brothers Circus purchased surplus hospital cars from the government and converted them for circus use.  The three basic types of circus railroad cars used from the 1930's into the 1950's  were flat cars, stock cars, and coaches.  Along with these cars, there were some specially modified and unique cars.

Stock cars were usually coupled directly behind the locomotive to help minimize jolting the animals, then came the flat cars, and finally the coaches brought up the rear of the train.

Circus trains were moved in sections.  Prior to WW II, RBBB had 100 cars which were moved in four sections.  According to Emmett Kelly, Jr., it cost the circus about $1000 to rent the locomotive which moved each circus train section and $1.00 a mile to move the Ringling Bros. show following World War II.  In 1947, RBBB traveled on 109 cars, the largest railroad circus in history.  In 1949, the RBBB moved on 89 circus railroad cars which when fully loaded weighed approximately 6,850 tons.  If this same equipment was moved on standard rail cars of the time, it would have required a 178 car freight train.

Motive power for the circus train was always provided by the railroads.  What type of motive power did the railroads use to move the heavy circus trains?   2-8-2 Mikados by the Chicago and North Western Railway and Santa Fe, 4-8-4 Northerns by the Union Pacific and Milwaukee Road; the CB&Q used EMD 6000 horsepower freight diesels.  Even though circus trains included coaches, they were always moved as freight service by the railroads, and so, the railroad's caboose brought up the rear.


The first circus flats of steel construction were sixty-foot cars.  The first show to use these flats was the Buffalo Bill's Wild West show in 1911.  By the 1920's the Warren Tank Car Company of Warren, Pennsylvania, and the Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company of Mt. Vernon, Illinois, were the principle providers of the steel circus flat cars.  In 1926, both these companies were competing heavily to get circuses to convert from the 60 foot cars to their new 70 and 72 foot flats.  Two other companies produced limited amounts of steel circus flat cars, Keith provided cars similar in appearance to those manufactured by Warren to the Hagenbeck-Wallace and the Sells-Floto circuses in the 1920s.  The other company was the Thrall Car Company of Chicago which built five flat cars in 1947 for RBBB.  Ringling Brothers Circus stayed with the wooden flats longer than the other shows, using them into the late 1920s, beginning the conversion to Warren flats in 1928.  The last of the wooden flats, which originated with the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, were used by the Bill Hames Carnival in the 1940's.
The 70 foot Mount Vernon flat cars can be distinguished by the pot belly sides with  ribs.

The 72 foot Warren flat car had no ribs and gently arcing sides on both top and bottom.  A typical Warren flat car measures 73 feet over the couplers, seventy feet for the bed, and 9' 9 1/4" in width.

In the 1947, Ringling Brothers needed to add additional cars to its train.  By this time, both Warren and Mt. Vernon were out of business.  They contracted with the Thrall Car Company of Chicago to build five additional flat cars.  These were similar in appearance to the Mt. Vernon style flat cars, however, there were no ribs showing on the exterior surfaces of the car.



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 in circus parlance, "bulls."   Like the flat cars, most stock cars were built by the Warren Tank Car Company or Mount Vernon Car Manufacturing.

The cars used to transport the bulls had solid sides and small windows for ventilation near the top of the car since the elephants were susceptible to pneumonia.  They were also about a foot taller than the other stock cars and had larger doors positioned directly across from each other in the center of the car.  The elephants were usually positioned in three pairs at each end of the car and another elephant could be loaded at the center of the car, facing a door.  Thus, each bull car could carry 12 or 13 adult elephants.  If a circus did not have this many bulls, one end of the car might be outfitted with bunks for the "bullmen," or elephant handlers.


Before tractors and trucks were in widespread use, the circus carried two types of horses.  Baggage stock were the draft horses used to move the circus wagons between the train and the lot and in the circus parade and the ring stock which were the horses that performed in the show.  Rail cars which carried ring stock were equipped with individual stalls for each horse.  Baggage stock did not have stalls, but were loaded side by side, always in the same spot,  in each end of the car.  Since the baggage stock would be needed immediately at the next city, they were carried with their harnesses on.  Chains were hung from the roof of the car with a hook on the end. The horse's collar was attached to the hook to relieve the weight around its neck.  The harnesses were only removed from the baggage horses at the horse tops (stable tents) on the circus lot during the day.  Each stock car had troughs running the length of the car so that the horses could be fed in route during long hauls.  Each trough had a lid with a chain attached.  The chain ran to a handle in the roof and during the trip, the attendants would walk along the roof and raise the trough lids to feed the horses.  The loading ramps for cars that carried ring stock had sides, but those for baggage stock did not since that the harnesses and collars had a tendency to catch the rails as the stock was loaded or unloaded.   The ramps were stored on racks located under the car during movement.   A typical stock car could carry about 27 baggage horses or 32 ring stock.  Ponies and other small animals could be double decked so that no space was wasted.  If there was still extra space inside, it was used to store extra supplies of programs, tickets, and concession items.  Doors on these cars were offset on each side, that is not across from each other.  This permitted loading the entire length of the car with stock, no wasted space in the center of the car as there would be if the doors were directly across from each other.

Into the 1920s, most stock cars were wooden, including the ends, as depicted in the below photo.  With the arrival of the steel flats, the ends of the stock cars became solid as can be seen in the photos above.







At one time, this car was a stock car for the circus.  When seen on a siding in Tampa, FL, it had been converted to carry a generator used to power the coaches.  The blue insignia indicates this car was assigned to the Blue Unit.


Although a very few shows bought new coaches for their personnel, most were obsolete or at least, used, railroad equipment.  At any rate, any coach coming into the circus hands was immediately gutted of everything that the Pullman company had installed.

The circus had a very strict employee caste system and this was no more pronounced than in personnel sleeping assignments on board the train.  Featured performers and key personnel were often assigned a stateroom or perhaps even a half or third of a car.  Some of the larger shows might even have a private coach for the owner or star performer, such as Tom Mix on the Cole Bros. train.  The Ringling train carried two private cars, one for John Ringling, the Jomar, and another for Charles Ringling, the Caledonia.  However, these were the rare exceptions.  Most of the circus coaches were filled top to bottom with berths.  An individual's assignment in the circus and length of employment dictated the assigned berth.  A newcomer, or "First of May" in circus parlance, might be assigned the top berth.  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.

Coaches were assigned by circus department, for example, band members might be assigned to one car, performers and staff to another, clowns to another, and so forth.  Single girls were assigned to a separate car which became nicknamed "the virgin car."

The porter assigned to each car was not only the housekeeper, but the law on the car.  He enforced the rules and settled disputes.  He also was the mailman and ran errands for the occupants of his car.  For these duties, he was tipped quite handsomely from his "charges."

In 1947, RBBB had taken possession of surplus hospital cars purchased from the government following World War II.  These cars were converted for use by the circus.  (The Monon Railroad's coaches for trains like the Thoroughbred were also converted hospital cars.)  In 1986, three of these converted hospital cars were seen in a Tampa, FL, scrap yard awaiting demolition (see photo below).  One of these hospital cars, Advertising Car No. 1,  is preserved at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, WI (see photo to the left).

In later years, most of the RBBB circus coaches had hot water and showers.  Each had a porter assigned whose responsibility was to make up the beds and keep the car clean.  One car had short berths for the midgets as well as special berths for the fat lady and giant.  One car was designated for the single women of the show and had a "car mother" assigned to look after the girls; another was set up for families; and another for the single men.  Unlike most other railroad shows, every working man had his own berth.  The early circus coaches some times had berths three high; some shows had a single berth at the top of the car and a double berth below in which two workers slept.  


In 1936,  Ringling Brothers added a hospital car, Number 99, called the Florence Nightingale to the circus train.  This luxury traveled with the show for only one year.

In 1949, Ringling Brothers added a laundry car with commercial laundry equipment to do the shows dry cleaning and laundry.

 John Ringling's private car, Jomar, had a cook, valet, and secretary who stayed with the car even with John Ringling was not on the show.  It contained a living room, staterooms, full sized bathroom, dining room, kitchen, and quarters for the chef and butler.  This car reportedly cost John Ringling $100,000, not a small sum in 1921.

Pie Car - The Pie Car is the closest thing the circus train has to a railroad diner or club car.  The Pie Car served as the social gathering place while the train was in route.  Sometimes, the operation was let out as a concession and on other shows it was run the by the circus management.  The Pie Car offered short-order food and some had a bar.  Circus personnel could usually find a game of cards or dice in progress on the Pie Car.  Normally, the Pie Car did not serve meals for the show people.  One exception was the Nickel Plate Shows which had no cookhouse and fed its personnel three meals per day in the Pie Car.  The Pie Cars on today's Red and Blue Units of the Ringling Bros. circus are dining cars and a large portion of those shows' personnel eat their meals in the Pie Car.  However, these modern day Pie Cars still offer short orders from an early breakfast to a midnight snack.

Advance or Advertising Car

"Goliath" Car - In 1928, Ringling featured a sea elephant, named Goliath.  The previous year, the Warren company had built Ringling a modified stock car for a white elephant which had been exhibited in 1927.  This car had an off-center dividing wall which divided the car into a short and long end.  In 1928, Ringling installed a large water tank in the short end of the car for Goliath, and filled the long end of the car with regular elephants.  When Goliath was returned to the car each day, his specially built flatbed wagon was backed up to an extra door on this customized stockcar and Goliath would enter his private compartment.  This specially modified car presented problems during transportation since the sloshing of Goliath in the tank and the movement of the water would cause the car to sway and frequently derail.  This car was on the Ringling circus train for four years and traveled a fifth year with the Ringling owned Sells-Floto Circus train.


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