Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Train Wreck

In a small corner of Chicago's Woodlawn Cemetery, a group of five elephants mark the spot known as Snowman's Rest. Despite the story many locals will tell you, there are no actual elephants or any other circus animals buried there. The phantom trumpeting residents claim to hear at night come from the nearby zoo. The tragedy associated with Showman's Rest was very real however.

June 22nd, 1918 in the middle of the rail circus's golden age. The second train of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was making its way from its most recent stand in Indiana to its next stop Near Chicago. sometime in the night an axle box began to overheat forcing the train to pull onto the Michigan Central rail line to wait for the part to cool. The first train carrying Hagenbeck-Wallace's animals and the majority of its tents and equipment, the first parts of a show that needed to be set up and torn down had already left ahead of the performers and roustabouts. Four warning signals and a flare on the tracks were set by the engineer and his crew.

All of them were missed.

Alonzo K. Sargent, engineer of a Michigan Central military troop train fell asleep at the controls. Sargent, who was running on little to no sleep in the previous 24 hours and was taking several medications at the time drove the otherwise empty troop train into the caboose and four rearmost sleeping cars of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train at an estimated 35 mph. Many of the victims died instantly as the troop train tore through the cars. The remaining victims died when the gas lighting system ignited, engulfing the wreck in flames. Lack of water made the fire difficult to extinguish when the fire department arrived. Survivors had to be restrained to keep them from running back into the conflagration to rescue their loved ones. By the time it was over, the crash and subsequent fire had taken the lives of some 87 members of Hagenbeck-Wallace and injured another 127.

Hagenbeck-Wallace's main competitor, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey quickly stepped in to help, offering performers and equipment to ensure that the circus was only forced to miss a single show. A mass burial in Showman's Rest, dedicated only days before the crash was conducted. Many of the dead remain unnamed, unable to be identified due both to the trauma of the fire and the itinerant nature of work on the circus where it was not uncommon to be hired as a roustabout in one city and leave the show in the next.

Sargent was tried for negligence but acquitted despite being found at fault by transit authorities. The case led to widespread reforms in safety and limits on the number of hours engineers could work however. Several other disasters later befell the Hagenbeck-Wallace show, including fires and the death of an elephant handler who was killed by another train while loading his animals. The show persisted however, surviving until 1938 and producing legendary performers including animal trainer Clyde Beatty and comedian and clown Red Skelton.

Other circus performers have been buried at Showman's Rest since the Hagenbeck-Wallace wreck. But never any elephants, no matter what the locals may tell you.