Important Fires of Circus History

By A. Morton Smith, Hobbies, September, 1944, pp. 24-25. 

The CIRCUS has been plagued by fires, wrecks, wind and rain storms and other deterrents since its earliest days as a tented traveling amusement enterprise, and these hazards have oft made the tradition “the show must go on,” difficult to uphold.

Demon fire has on a score of occasions in 165 years of American circus history, dealt severe blows to circus caravans.

But there has been no such tragic page in circus history as was written in Hartford, Conn., on July 6 of this year, when more than 150 persons, half of them young children, perished in flames which reduced to ashes, the gigantic big top of Ring-ling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The mortality of all the other fires of circusdom combined, pales into insignificance as compared with the Hartford toll. And while violent death is tragic in any sense, the fact that all who succumbed in this catastrophe were amusement seeking spectators, etches more deeply the tragedy of the incident.

Impulsively there have been public officials, newspaper editors and individual spokesmen, shocked by the catastrophe, who have predicted that the Hartford fire may be the death knell of the circus as an amusement institution.

They undoubtedly shared the feeling of the editor of one Connecticut newspaper, who wrote:

“For people in all of Connecticut, the word ‘circus’ has lost forever its connotations of gladness and diversion. What used to be an oasis in a busy world engrossed in care, brings a shudder of horror and a shadow of sorrow.”

But the same editorial carries this observation:

“There is no thrill in the world equal to juvenile anticipation for circus day and youthful excitement of trying to keep up with the doings of a three-ring performance. There is no parental gratification more pleasant than sharing this thrill with one’s offspring. Circus day has been a perennial treat for youngsters and oldsters alike.”

And looking to the future, the editor concludes: “Circus day has meant too much for too long to be banished from the sphere of childhood’s joys.”

Out of the tragedy undoubtedly will come precautions that will prevent such a holocaust, although hundreds of millions of circus goers have witnessed the performances of more than 1,000 circuses which have toured these United States since the first circus exhibited in 1790, without being imperiled in such a manner by a big top fire.

It is a foregone conclusion that there will be developed and employed, a dual treatment for canvas to waterproof and fireproof the fabric, thus eliminating the peril of fire in the exhibition tent.

And it is obvious that ways and means of providing exits from circus tents for all patrons minus the hazards of impeding equipment and rigging will be worked out by circus technicians.

The circus has long been a miracle of organization, detail and exactness in the handling of great expanses of canvas, huge seating arrangements and a maze of aerial and ground rigging on which hundreds of performers exhibit their skill, daring and artistry.

And there is no reason to believe that the gifted technicians who have invented, constructed and managed the magic circus caravans – here today and elsewhere tomorrow – shall not come through with ingenious methods of contributing to the safety of patrons from the youngest kiddies to the oldest adults who thrill to the charms of circus day. It is a challenge that undoubtedly will be met and met quickly.

As a matter of record for circusiana collectors, appended herewith are brief details of the important fires in circus history preceding the “Hartford conflagration:

February 3, 1838. Thomas Cooke Circus destroyed by fire which razed the Front Street Theatre in Baltimore, Md.

July 5, 1866. Seth B. Howes Circus lost 10 horses in stable fire in Newburg, N. Y.

December 24, 1872. P. T. Barnum’s Circus, Museum and Menagerie destroyed by fire.

December 20, 1873. Adam Forepaugh Circus quarters destroyed at Germantown, Philadelphia, Pa.

November 1, 1887. Barnum & London winter quarters burned at Bridgeport, Conn.

Febmary 30, 1888. W. H. Stowe’s circus destroyed along with the steamer “Golden City” on which it was being transported, at Memphis, Tenn. Mr. and Mrs. Stowe, owners, and a third member of the circus lost their lives.

Season of 1889. Terrell Bros. Circus lost 20 horses, burned to death on a ferry-boat which caught fire at Oquawka, Ill., as the show was crossing the Missouri river.

January 19, 1900. Barnum & Bailey winter quarters at Bridgeport, Conn., damaged by fire.

August 5, 1901. Ringling Brothers side-show tent destroyed at Kansas City, Mo.

May 21, 1910. Barnum & Bailey big top burned at Schenectady, N. Y., with 15,000 spectators in attendance at matinee performance.

August 12, 1912. Ringling Bros. big top destroyed by fire on fairgrounds at Sterling, Ill., just before matinee was scheduled. No one hurt.

May 26, 1914. Ringling Bros, lost 43 railway cars which burned at Cleveland, Ohio, with a loss of $65,000.

October 28, 1916. Ringling Bros. baggage horse tent burned at Huntsville, Ala. Forty horses burned to death, 40 had to be killed, loss $25,000.

June 22, 1932. John H. Sparks circus private car, occupied by Manager Charles Spark, burned at Munising, Mich.

February 2, 1924. Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey winter quarters at Bridgeport, Conn., had a $100,000 fire loss.

October 8, 1925. Miller Bros. 101 Ranch Wild West show lost two sleeping cars in fire at Gainesville, Ga.

September 26, 1936. Hagenbeck-Wallace circus had $75,000 winter quarters fire at Peru, Ind.

February 20, 1940. Cole Bros, winter quarters fire destroyed two elephants, eight cages, several parade wagons at Rochester, Ind., with $150,000 loss.

August 4, 1942. Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey circus menagerie tent burned at Cleveland, Ohio, destroying 40 costly animals.

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