Horrific Circus Train Crash In 1918 Killed Popular Circus Entertainers

By | July 30, 2018

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Circus graveyard: Showmen's Rest and the Hagenbeck-Wallace tragedy of 1918 - Chicago Tribune

One of the worst train wrecks in the United States occurred with a circus train carrying 400 circus performers was rear-ended by another train and burst into flames. The accident happened in the wee morning hours of June 22, 1918, near Hammond, Indiana, and left the strong man for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, along with a couple of trapeze artists, the bearded lady, and a slew of unknown roustabouts among the 89 people killed and more than 150 injured. The horrific accident shed light on many of the hazards of railroad travel in the early 20th century.

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A mass funeral for clowns

The Train Conductor Had Been Awake for 24 Hours

Alonzo Sargent was the conductor of the Michigan Central Railroad that was following the circus train. In the 1910s, there was no oversight of the train conductors’ well-being. Sargent had been awake for well over 24 hours, driving trains all across the Midwest. A few hours before the accident, he had taken some kidney medication and ate a heavy meal. All that, plus the gentle movement of the train as it sped down the tracks, lulled Sargent into a fast, deep sleep. He was aware of the circus car in front of him, but he didn’t know that the circus train had stopped momentarily so a brakeman could check a mechanical issue. Sargent slept through two warning signals the circus train had initiated to let other trains on their tracks aware of their stopped position.