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100 years ago the worst circus train wreck in U.S. history happened in Gary, Indiana

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1918 circus train wreck

An Interstate Commerce Commission report on the June 22, 1918, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck said 20 bodies were found under Locomotive 8485, shown in this photo.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus visit to Hammond was big news in June 1918. Advertising in The Lake County Times emphasized this was the "biggest circus in the world," requiring three trains to transport it. A parade was to be held at 10 a.m. June 22 that year, followed by circus performances at 2 and 8 p.m. 

Today, a century later, mourners plan to lay a wreath at the site of the worst circus train wreck in the nation’s history. The final death toll was 86, with 127 injured.

The Hammond Historical Society reprinted Warren Reeder’s 1972 book on the train wreck, “No Performances Today,” for the centennial, and half are already sold, according to Amanda Aguilera, local history librarian at the Hammond Public Library.

Cause of accident

The tragedy unfolded just before 4 a.m. in Gary’s Ivanhoe section. 

A bad wheel bearing was one of the causes of the accident, said Richard Lytle, author of “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918.” Lytle was Aguilera’s predecessor. His book was published in 2010.

“Nowadays they pack them in grease, just like your car, but in the old days it was oil can maintenance,” Lytle said. “If you run out of oil, those bearings get hot.”

And if a bearing gets too hot, it can cause a fire.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus used old wooden cars with oil lamps, Lytle said.

“Those old cars the circus was running, one of those old cars needed oil desperately.”

So the engineer stopped the train, and its tail end was hanging out on the main line.

A westbound train carrying empty troop transport cars on the Michigan Central line slammed into the back of the circus train.

“It was going at such a high rate of speed that it split through the caboose and five coaches like a man shoves his finger into butter,” The Lake County Times reported that day. “The sleepers with their human freight were shot up into the air telescoped, crushed and then horror reigned.”

Alonzo Sargent, engineer of the troop train, was literally asleep at the switch and missed the warnings.

“The wreckage immediately took fire, the four sleeping cars on the rear of extra 7826 being entirely destroyed,” an Interstate Commerce Commission report on the wreck investigation said.

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The immediate aftermath

The circus train was on its way to Hammond, following an appearance in Michigan City the day before.

The train containing animals was at the stockyards in Chicago, Lytle said, so the animals could be fed and watered —“standard operating procedure for a circus at that time.”

A second circus train already had gone through the crossing before the third was stopped, he said.

First responders “did their best, but they didn’t have anything to work with,” Lytle said.

This was decades prior to 911. The two men in the Ivanhoe signal tower, about 100 feet from the accident, phoned whomever they could.

One of the first on the scene was the mayor of Gary, who brought his fire chief with him. The mayor got on the phone and organized “about every medical personnel he could get his hands on,” Lytle said.

Triage was done at the Michigan Central Railroad station in Hammond, between Calumet and Homan avenues. The station is now gone.

Patients were sent to St. Margaret’s Hospital as fast as possible.

1918 circus train wreck

A crane lifts wreckage from the June 22, 1918, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck.

The victims

Joe Coyle Sr., one of the circus clowns, had gotten permission to have his family travel with him. He fought the fire with his bare hands as his wife and children were dying in the flames.

“Papa, help me out,” were the last words young Joe Coyle Jr. said before he died, The Lake County Times reported that day.

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Porters on the otherwise empty troop train ran up to the crash site and helped as much as they could, Lytle said.

“A couple of them got sent to the hospital with burns,” he said.

One circus employee, a seamstress, had her injured shoulder reset and was back with the circus the following day, Lytle said.

As macabre as it sounds, the train wreck provided entertainment for the people who lived nearby.

“People actually were walking down the tracks to the accident site, and they were taking pictures of themselves there at the accident site,” Lytle said.

“One person brought his little toddlers down there to the site,” Lytle said. “I guess they did this after all the bodies were out of there.”

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Golden age of circuses

The 1910s and 1920s were the golden age of American circuses, Miami County Historian Kreig Adkins said. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus had its winter quarters in Peru.

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“They didn’t have radio even. That didn’t come out for another six years. Your entertainment was right there in your face. Movies, but they were silent,” Lytle said.

Adkins, a former circus clown, offered perspective on circuses at the time.

“Performers, to them it was a job. They were just earning money for their families. They weren’t rock stars or anything,” he said. “Between shows, they had to do laundry and tend to their families and everything like that.”

“It was a rough life, and they did that every day, rarely getting a day off between shows,” Adkins said.

The circus train wreck was on a Saturday, and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus didn’t perform on Sundays. The wreck canceled the Hammond show and one that was to have been held in Monroe, Wisconsin, on June 24. But on June 25, the circus was back in business, performing in Beloit, Wisconsin. The show must go on.

Some of the acts came from other circuses, Adkins said. Moving between circuses was common.

“They would jump circuses,” Adkins said. “Sometimes it would be for money, sometimes they just wouldn’t get along with people.”

And some dropped out of the circus.

Otto Griebling was a popular circus clown. One day, the circus was in Madison, Wisconsin, the trainer gave him $5 and told him to go into town to get bread and milk. Griebling pocketed the money and worked at a dairy two years. When the circus returned that year, he gave the trainer a jug of milk, a loaf of bread and change for the $5. He got his job back, Adkins said.

Train Wreck-100th Anniversary

In this June 1918 photo, many of the deceased who were killed in the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train wreck near Hammond, Ind. are buried at Showman's Rest in Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Ill. The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus had just finished two shows in Michigan City, Ind., and was heading to Hammond when an empty train barreled into the circus train on June 22, 1918. (Chicago Tribune via AP)

Circus trains, burials

It was difficult figuring out who the victims were because of the way circuses were run then. Some of the employees had been hired days or even hours before. That was when running away and joining the circus really happened.

Aboard the circus trains, Adkins said, “it was cramped quarters. Very few people would have staterooms. The rest of them would be in sleeper cars, would be stacked like in the Three Stooges movies.”

Roustabouts would travel with animals and circus equipment, jumping aboard before the train left without them.

“Everybody would just find a place on the train. They would sleep in a wagon, or under a wagon,” Adkins said.

A lot of the retired circus performers from that era “couldn’t rub two nickels together," he said, but they loved their life in the circus, traveling all over and seeing the world.

The Showmen’s League of America was formed in Chicago in December 1913. Buffalo Bill Cody was its first president. The organization had purchased a section of Woodlawn Cemetery, called Showmen’s Rest, in Forest Park the year before the train wreck. There was a massive burial service there with victims of the crash.

The identity of many of the victims were unknown. Markers say "unidentified male," “unidentified female.” One simply says, "4 Horse Driver."

June 1918 front pages from The Lake County Times

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