Due to low attendance, rising costs, and suspected pressure from animal rights activists, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced the circus would close in May 2017 after 146 years.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is a United States traveling circus company billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” The circus, known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, was started in 1919 when the Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, a circus created by P. T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey, was merged with the Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows. The Ringling brothers had purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. following Bailey’s death in 1906, but ran the circuses separately until they were merged in 1919.
A brief summary about the early days of circus reveals:
In 1884, five of the seven Ringling brothers had started a small circus in Baraboo, Wisconsin. This was about the same time that Barnum & Bailey were at the peak of their popularity. Similar to dozens of small circuses that toured the Midwest and the Northeast at the time, the brothers moved their circus from town to town in small animal-drawn caravans. Their circus rapidly grew and they were soon able to move their circus by train, which allowed them to have the largest traveling amusement enterprise of that time. Bailey’s European tour gave the Ringling brothers an opportunity to move their show from the Midwest to the eastern seaboard. Faced with the new competition, Bailey took his show west of the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1905. He died the next year, and the circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers. [Wikipedia]
A fascinating aspect of the circus is the transportation methods used, beginning in the late 19th century. Trains, and train wagons transported people, equipment, animals, and performers state-to-state and overseas by country. A seemingly economical and fast way to travel, the mode of travel wasn’t without its peril.
The Railroad Tradition at Ringling Bros.
1830s Railroads and circuses begin to appear in the Eastern United States
1840s Circuses begin using boxcars and stock cars for limited distances
1870s April 18, 1872 Ð the P.T. Barnum Circus loaded onto flat cars “piggyback” -style on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Rented sleepers serve as solid circus train, the first unit train concept
1890s The best circuses move by rail: Barnum & Bailey has 56 cars, Ringling Bros. has 56 cars
1920s Ringling Bros. totals almost 100 cars traveling by rail
1950s Ringling Bros. shifts to combined rail/truck transportation
1960s Ringling Bros. discontinues using tents and returns to 100% rail transportation
1969 Ringling Bros. forms second rail unit
The first circus to travel by rail was the Den Stone Circus in 1854. Through out the history of the American circus, train wrecks have taken many lives. The last fatal circus train wreck occurred in 1994 near Lakeland, Florida. [www.circusesandsideshows.com]
Regardless of the irony about train wrecks and the circus, the history of rail and commerce is documented in photographs quite effectively and idyllically. It speaks to the nature of the business and revealed a lifestyle of hard labor and endless travel. Depending on what you believe, we have replaced the circus with our own media circus, and nevertheless the early traveling sideshow and the romanticism of the train has a place in Americana, now almost only captured in images.
[All images in gallery are from Collection of Circus Travel photography albums. c. 1890-1960. A fabulous pair of albums containing upwards of 550 black and white original photographs and clippings of circus vehicles, parades, acts and equipment dating from the late 19th century through the Depression and war years up to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. 2 volumes, quarto,
approx 34 leaves per volumes, 310 images in volume I, 234 images in vol II with some loose and displaced images throughout. The albums are 1940’s rexine bound ring binders with heavy sugar paper leaves, all images in very good condition or better, the majority captioned with typed tape slips either on the image or adjacent to it on the album page. Very Good+. Spiral Bound. (#9077)]