The circus train has long been a favorite among model railroaders, circus buffs and well, children of all ages. The history of moving the big top by rail in steeped in tradition and innovation.
The railroad opened the country to traveling shows in the Nineteenth Century. A new audience was only a night’s ride away. But the railroads benefitted from the circus as well. The success of a circus required an efficient set-up / tear-down, including getting everything on and off the train. The circus was an early proponent of “intermodal” transportation. The majority of the goods needed for the show were packed onto wagons. These wagons were then loaded on flatcars – with horses and elephants used in the shows providing the power in the early years. Not only was this method efficient, it allowed the circus to open in fields and fair grounds a reasonable distance from the railhead. The circus parade through town was part event, part advertising and part of the set-up.
So successful were the early efforts of the circus that they were studied by the U.S. Army for military trains and later by the railroads themselves for loading truck trailers. To this day the practice of loading flatcars with vehicles from one end is called “Circus Style.” From a ramp at one end of the train, wagons would be rolled along the decks of the flatcars to the other, with special bridge plates used to span the gaps between cars.
In addition to the flatcars filled with wagons, a typical circus train also required stock cars for livestock and wild animals. These were usually hauled at the front of the train and like other stock cars would require intermediate stops for food, water and rest on longer trips.
The circus train was also the home-away-from-home for the performers and staff. Sleeping cars and a dining car were a must. Additional cars for office space and other activities were also common. Often a special promotional car was sent in another train a day or two ahead of the circus train to handle publicity in the next venue.
Since the early days, the circus has generally owned the train cars with the host railroad supplying the locomotives and caboose. Because of the live cargo on board, circus trains were generally moved on the fastest passenger train timing despite their freight train length. These long and heavy but hurried extra trains were one more challenge for the operators of the railroad, but also provided a great public face. It was not uncommon to see multiple locomotives or some of the road’s best power assigned to these trains.
The practice continues today thanks to Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey and the Strates Shows. Next time the circus is coming to your town, you can count on something interesting at the nearby rail yard!