Blog Post

The horror of the Hammond circus train wreck

The post below is a guest blog written by Sweetums.

By Wil Elrick

I recently visited the site of what is worst rail disaster in United States history, The Dutchman’s Curve Train Wreck of 1918. While touring the area and learning the history, I was reminded of a train accident that I was much more familiar with since I previously lived in Northwest Indiana: The Hammond circus train wreck. It also occurred in 1918, just 17 days before the one in Nashville.

Click here to read about Dutchman’s Curve.

At around 4 a.m. on Saturday, June 22, 1918, experienced railroad engineer Alonzo Sargent was barreling down the tracks in a Michigan Central train headed to the west coast to pick up soldiers for the Great War. Sargent knew that he was following in the path of two circus trains that were loaded and were going much slower than his empty train. Even with his experience and knowledge, Sargent’s train slammed into the back of the circus train on the tracks near Hammond Indiana.

The circus trains were owned by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus (the third largest circus in the country), which had just wrapped up shows in Michigan City, Ind., The two trains were en-route to Hammond.

East Oregonian newspaper photo of the Hammond circus train wreck. (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)

The first of the two trains contained the animals and the workers of the circus while the second train carried the circus performers. The first train had made it safely to Hammond, but the second train suffered a malfunction. To deal with the problem, the first cars pulled off on side tracks but five of the rear train cars remained on the main track, which should not have been a problem as the rail line was aware of the situation.

Before slamming into the motionless circus train, Sargent’s train blew past several stop signals on the tracks as well as the lamps and lanterns of the engineers trying to stop the train because they knew what lay ahead. All of it was for naught — the speeding train collided with the stopped one. The collision was so loud that farmers in the countryside were awakened and went to see what had occurred. Making the collision far worse was the fact that the troop train was hauling steel Pullman cars, which tore through the wooden circus train cars.

To make matters worse, the cars were lit with kerosene lamps that promptly exploded, spewing flames and rapidly igniting the wooden cars and debris. People risked their lives trying to rescue those trapped in the wreckage. The accident was witnessed by rail workers on the track and observers in overhead towers who immediately called for help. Fire departments from both Hammond and Gary came to the scene but supplying water to fight the raging fires was difficult because the supply came from shallow marshes nearby.

When reports of the disaster circulated the next day, scenes of utmost horror were retold. An Iowa newspaper The Daily Gate City and Constitution Democrat wrote “The task of identifying the dead and seriously injured was almost hopeless. Not only were the bodies burned so badly that recognition was impossible, but practically everyone on the train was killed or hurt.”

More than 100 people were injured in the collision and resulting fire and 86 were killed. Investigators believe that most of the victims died within the first 35 seconds after the collision. Some of the people killed were top performers of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and well known in the circus circuits.

As fate would have it, the Showman’s League of America (a group founded by showpeople in 1913 dedicated to service and fellowship) had earlier in the year purchased an area of Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Ill., for circus performers to be laid to rest.

Showman’s Rest in Forest Park, Ill. (6th Happiness | Wikimedia Commons)

On June 27, 1918, 53 of the victims from the train disaster were interred in the plots as a crowd of almost 1,500 people mourned. Only five of the 53 victims interred were identified by name with most being marked as “unknown.” In true showman spirit, though, some of the graves are marked “Smiley”, “Baldy” and “4 Horse Driver.” There are also more recent graves in the cemetery of people who worked with or travelled with the circus who wished to be buried there after their deaths. Today, that portion of the cemetery is known as Showman’s Rest and is marked in true circus fashion with statues of elephants in grieving poses.

After the wreck, Sargent and his train fireman were arrested and criminally charged in the deaths. Sargent reportedly had fallen asleep and been solely responsible for the crash. At trial, however, the jury was dead-locked, and a mistrial was declared in the case. Prosecutors opted not to re-try the case. The Interstate Commerce Commission that investigated the accident cited use of wooden train cars as contributing to the death toll.

Incredibly, Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus only missed two performances from its schedule. With extra work from remaining members and other circuses from around the country pitching in, the show went on.

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