Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show Poster

Remembering The Magic of Circus Parades in Michigan In the early 1900s

Until about 1920, the day the circus arrived at the local train station, it was considered a sort of holiday. A festive atmosphere would ensue for kids in town. All the circus performers, animals, tents, and large impressive gilded wagons were unloaded and formed into impromptu circus parades through town en route to the town’s fairgrounds.

Circus Parades Kicked Off The Show

Ringling Circus Parade in Detroit - Circus Parades
Ringling Circus Parade in Detroit – Courtesy Detroit Public Library

In the early 1900s, the Barnum & Bailey Circus would leave their winter quarters and tour the country. Michigan tour stops include Detroit, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, and Ironwood in the Upper Peninsula. The entire number of staff and performers would exceed 1000.

Elephants Leaving Train Car
Elephants Leaving Train Car – Courtesy Detroit Public Library

The Greatest Show On Earth

The Barnum and Bailey Circus – The Greatest Show on Earth would present a menagerie of various acts and shows. Dancing elephants, equestrian seals, squads of clowns, sword swallowers, and of course aerial specialists, acrobats, and high-wire trapeze acts. In 1904, the latest and greatest thriller was “The Balloon Horse Jupiter.”

Video of Barnum Circus Parades in 1904

Circus Trains Carried The Show

As the circus train would stop at each stop, the town folk would eagerly await the parade through town. This was considered the circus’s first act. It served to transport the entire troop, tends, and animals to the big top. The circus parades would serve the dual purpose of a living advertisement through town.

This small shot from the early 1900s shows a large parade of at least 20 elephants pulling a wagon through Bay City.

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Bay City Circus Parade c1905

By the late 1920s, acts started to discontinue the circus parades. Circus troops would use trucks instead of trains, and the circus act could be set up further away from the train depot.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed with Asian elephants for the last time on May 1, 2016, in Providence, Rhode Island. Thirty elephants once used in the circus shows will move to a new, 2,500-acre habitat at White Oak, Florida, in 2021.

Circus Companies in the Early 1900s

In the early 1900s, the United States saw a golden age of circuses, with several prominent companies operating and touring across the country. Here are some of the key circus companies from that era:

Ringling Brothers Circus

Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus - 1964 - Library of Congress
Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus – 1964 – Library of Congress

Founded in 1884 by the Ringling brothers, this circus quickly became one of the largest and most famous in America. By the early 1900s, it was a dominant force in the circus world.

Barnum & Bailey Circus

Barnum & Bailey Circus - Library of Congress
Barnum & Bailey Circus – Library of Congress

Originally started by P.T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey in the late 19th century, the Barnum & Bailey Circus was known as “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It was famous for its extravagant spectacles and a wide variety of acts.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show - Library of Congress
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show – Library of Congress

While not a traditional circus, Buffalo Bill’s show, which started in the late 1880s, was a traveling performance featuring “Wild West” themes, including sharpshooting, rodeo, and reenactments of battles. It was hugely popular in the early 1900s.

Sells Brothers Circus

Sells Brothers Circus - Library of Congress
Sells Brothers Circus – Library of Congress

The Sells Brothers Circus, founded by the Sells brothers, was another significant circus of the time. It was known for its elaborate circus parades and exotic animals.

The Sells Brothers Circus, established in the early 1870s by Ephraim, Allen, Lewis, and Peter Sells, was a significant force in the late 19th and early 20th century American circus scene. Originating from a farming background in Ohio, the Sells brothers quickly transformed their small circus investment into a major entertainment enterprise. Known for its elaborate street circus parades, the circus became a symbol of spectacle and grandeur, featuring ornately decorated wagons, a wide array of exotic animals, and performers in vibrant costumes. The circus’s extensive menagerie, including elephants, camels, horses, and various acts such as acrobats, clowns, and trapeze artists, catered to the diverse entertainment tastes of the era.

The Sells Brothers Circus faced tough competition but continued to innovate and tour across the US. In 1900, they merged with Adam Forepaugh Circus to create the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus, a pivotal moment in circus history. Today, the Sells Brothers Circus is remembered for its grandiose parades and diverse entertainment, shaping the American circus tradition.

Adam Forepaugh Circus

Adam Forepaugh Circus - Library of Congress
Adam Forepaugh Circus – Library of Congress

This circus, founded by Adam Forepaugh in the 1860s, was one of the leading competitors to Barnum & Bailey in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was known for its menagerie and the introduction of novel acts.

The Adam Forepaugh Circus and the Sells Brothers Circus merged to form the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers Circus, a significant event in the history of American circuses. This merger occurred in 1900, creating one of the largest and most spectacular circus enterprises of the early 20th century.

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus

Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus - Library of Congress
Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus – Library of Congress

Formed from the merger of two circuses, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus became one of the most prominent traveling circuses in the early 20th century, known for its large animal acts.

This 1935 photograph shows a crowd gathering midway through the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, heading towards the entrance marquee tent. The left side of the picture displays a painted banner line that depicts freaks and attractions in the sideshow, which was an added fee attraction operating before the main show. On the right-hand side, concession tents and ticket wagons are visible. Behind the marquee entrance, there is a “free” menagerie tent that exhibits exotic caged animals, elephants, and other lead stock.

By the 1930s, the midway had become integral to the American circus experience. The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, based in Peru, Indiana, was once the second-largest circus in America, after the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Its origins go back to the famed animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck (1844–1913), whose Carl Hagenbeck Circus was bought by Benjamin Wallace in 1907. The circus ceased operations in 1938.

Al G. Barnes Circus

Al G. Barnes Circus
The Circus QueenAl G. Barnes Circus – Library of Congress

Founded in the early 1900s, the Al G. Barnes Circus was known for its exotic animal acts and traveled extensively across North America.

The Al G. Barnes Circus, established by Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse around 1905, emerged as a notable entity in the American circus landscape of the early 20th century. Renowned for its extensive collection of exotic animals, the circus was a testament to Barnes’ expertise in animal training, a skill he honed from a young age. The circus distinguished itself with a variety of animal acts, showcasing elephants, lions, tigers, and bears, alongside traditional circus performances such as acrobatics, clowns, and trapeze artists. It moved from town to town as a traveling show, captivating audiences under the iconic “big top” tents, a hallmark of that era’s traveling circuses.

The Al G. Barnes Circus faced challenges due to changing economic conditions and evolving public attitudes towards animal performances. Barnes sold it to the American Circus Corporation in the 1920s, which was later acquired by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1929, ultimately leading to the end of the Al G. Barnes Circus as an independent entity. However, its legacy remains as it made significant contributions to the industry, particularly in animal training and performance. It is part of the rich history of American circuses, a significant cultural phenomenon during the golden age of traveling shows.

Sparks Circus

Sparks Circus - Library of Congress
Sparks Circus – Library of Congress

The Sparks Circus, active in the early 20th century, was smaller but known for its quality performances and classic circus acts.

Sparks Circus, founded by Charles Sparks, was a smaller yet distinguished American circus. Known for its traditional family-friendly performances, it focused on classic acts including acrobatics, clowns, animal performances, and equestrian shows. Despite its smaller size, Sparks Circus maintained a high standard in its performances until its eventual closure.

Sparks Circus was a traveling show in the southeastern United States that brought traditional circus entertainment to smaller communities. It used railroad cars for transportation but faced economic challenges and changing public tastes. Charles Sparks sold the circus in the mid-1930s, and although it continued under new ownership, it eventually suffered the same fate as other traditional circuses. Today, it is remembered for its commitment to the classic circus ethos and contribution to American circus history.

These circuses played a crucial role in American entertainment during the early 1900s. They were not just sources of amusement; they were cultural phenomena that brought people from all walks of life together to witness the spectacle and wonder of the circus. The early 1900s was indeed a time when the circus industry was at its peak in terms of popularity and influence.

Circus Catastrophes in Michigan

Wallace Brothers Circus Train Disaster

Wallace Brothers Circus Train Disaster
Wallace Train Wreak of 1903 – Found at

On August 4, 1903, a devastating tragedy struck the Great Wallace Shows circus train en route to Lapeer for a scheduled performance. In the early morning hours, the circus train, split into two sections, was traveling after a show in Charlotte. The first section had halted near Durand, flagged down by a livestock train ahead.

Tragically, the second section approached rapidly and was unaware and moving at high speed. Despite the desperate efforts of Engineman Charles Probst to halt the train, including reversing the engine and signaling for hand brakes, the second section crashed into the first. The collision was catastrophic, with Probst’s engine plowing through the caboose and a sleeper car, resulting in immediate fatalities among the sleeping circus workers.

The local community of Durand swiftly responded, aiding in rescue operations. The Hotel Richelieu was converted into a makeshift hospital and morgue to manage the crisis. Of the forty-eight people in the last sleeper car, twenty lost their lives, with three additional fatalities and over forty injuries reported. The accident also claimed the lives of three camels, a dog, and an elephant, whose remains were buried near the crash site. The coroner’s jury later attributed the cause of the accident to engineer Probst, suggesting that closer attention to the air gauge might have averted the collision.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus Train Wreck

circus train wreck large
Circus Train Wreck 1918 – Source Unknown

On June 22, 1918, the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus suffered one of the worst train wrecks in U.S. history near Hammond, Indiana, close to the Michigan state line. After a performance in Michigan City, Indiana, the circus was en route to Hammond when the train carrying the performers collided with another train. Over 100 people were injured, and 86 lost their lives, including notable performers.

The aftermath was chaotic, with identifying the dead being nearly impossible due to the severe burns from the ensuing fire. Despite the massive loss, the circus continued, missing only two performances, a testament to the resilience of the performers. The Showmen’s League arranged for the burial of 53 unidentifiable performers in Chicago, with only five marked graves. A stone elephant memorializes the grave site, symbolizing the tragedy that befell the circus community​​​​​​.

The High Wire Act Tragedy at the Shrine Circus

The tragedy occurred at the Shrine Circus in Detroit on January 30, 1962. During a high-wire act, the famed Wallenda circus family attempted to form a seven-person pyramid. Unfortunately, Dieter Schepp, who was at the front of the pyramid, faltered, and the pyramid collapsed. This resulted in the deaths of Richard Faughnan, Karl Wallenda’s son-in-law, and nephew Dieter Schepp. Karl Wallenda sustained a pelvis injury, and his adopted son, Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down. Jana Schepp, Dieter’s sister, managed to fall into the safety net, but she bounced out, sustaining a head injury​​.

The incident was a shocking event that horrified the spectators. Some of the crowd panicked when the high-wire act went disastrously wrong​​. The Flying Wallendas were known for performing without a safety net, which added to the gravity and danger of their performances. The Wallendas have faced several tragedies throughout their history, yet they have continued to perform, upholding their longstanding tradition of high-wire acts.​

Sources for Circus Parades in Michigan

Images provided courtesy of the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

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Michael Hardy

Mike Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. It started in 2009 as a fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

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