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Circus Train Wreck

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Circus Train wreck 1Our farm is on the top of a hill on the edge of the Allegheny Front, and at one time a railway ran along the base of the same hill, descending the front. Every day we cross the trackway (now bare earth) at McCann's Crossing, and pass the memorial for the Walter L Main's All New Monster Shows Train Wreck of Memorial Day, 1893, claimed at the time it occurred to be the worst tragedy in circus history.

There are local verbal accounts, not all of which seem to be substantiated by the on-the-spot news coverage of the day.  One rumor claims the wreck was caused by one drunk Jake Friday, sleeping on the tracks (which may tell you more about the reputation of the extensive Friday clan in the area than about the disaster).  Apparently the circus elephants were harnessed to help pull the wreckage apart.  There is supposed to be a large pit grave for the dead animals at the memorial site (most of the circus horses died, as well as a few others).  Hannah Friday meeting the tiger while milking her cow is still a popular story, no doubt partly because the official memorial refers to it.

As the memorial declares:

All the animals that were not shot were finally accounted for.  The snakes were never recovered.

(A nice bit of writing, that.)

Excerpts from a variety of contemporary news accounts…

The engineer of Walter L. Main's Circus train lost his grip on locomotive no. 1500 when going down the mountain on the Tyrone & Clearfield Railroad Tuesday morning, May 30, 1893, about 5:30 o'clock, and there was a wild ride at flying speed, and then nineteen cars filled with people and animals from all parts of the world leaped from the tracks and were crushed to splinters. Five were killed outright and many were injured, some in the crash and some by the animals. All the surviving animals escaped, and some roamed the local woods for quite a while.

Main's Circus was going from Houtzdale to Lewistown, and set out in a train composed of three passenger coaches and nineteen circus cars. The route lay over the Tyrone & Clearfield branch of Pennsylvania Railroad, and when descending the steep grade near Vail Station, five miles north of Tyrone, the engineer became powerless to abate the train's rapidly-increasing speed. At the station the train was going at a forty-mile-an-hour gait and jumped the track, owing to a broken axle. The locomotive and passenger coaches remained on the rails.

Engine No. 1500 was selected to draw the circus train. Stephen Croswell, engineer and Harvey Meese, fireman. When Osceola was reached, in order to make the ascent of the mountain, another engine in charge of Engineer Reeder, was attached as a pusher. The ascent was made in safety. When the summit was reached, and the pusher left the train on its trip down the mountain, it is reported that the train containing its charge of human lives, and stock and equipment to the value of $200,000, seemed to shoot right off, and someone then remarked that it would be a miracle if it was not wrecked before Vail was reached. The train rounded the dozen or more short curves, including the one at the big fill, at a high rate of speed, and when it passed Gardner's one who was on it informed the author that it was going so fast that it would have been impossible to count the telegraph poles, that the train seemed to be literally flying down the mountain. A mile or two below Gardner's there is a reverse curve, and then follows a mile of straight track to Vail. It was at the Tyrone end of the reverse curve where the appalling and fearful accident occurred.

Many of the men slept in the cars under the wagons containing the animals. Sixteen animal cages, along the cars, were flattened into small pieces, and pandemonium reigned. The dead and wounded people were taken from the wreck and the latter were removed to the hospital by a special train to Altoona. When the wild beasts were freed a strange spectacle was witnessed. The head of one of the elephants was fastened down by one of the cars. As soon as released the huge beast struggled to his feet, shaking off the heavy timbers like straw, plowed through the balance of the wreck to freedom, seemingly happy of his escape.

The tiger that frightened Hannah Friday, in the Tyrone Sportsman's Club (at McCann's Crossing)
The tiger that frightened Hannah Friday, in the Tyrone Sportsman's Club (at McCann's Crossing)

One of the tigers got out, and immediately began looking around to see what he could devour. He pounced upon the sacred ox, which had been badly wounded and tore it frightfully, killing it. The untamed monster started out in the country, looking for new fields. He came to the farm-yard of Alfred Thomas, where a woman was milking a cow. The woman left suddenly and the tiger sprang upon the cow and killed her. He was devouring his quivering meal, when the farmer appeared with his rifle and shot the tiger.

Mrs. William Lyson, wife of the telegraph operator at Vail, on learning of the wreck, started to walk to the wreck and met a lion, and on turning to run was horror struck at seeing a large hyena within a few feet of her. She stood stock still and screamed when the animals left.

Walter L. Main Circus Train Wreck Memorial
Walter L. Main Circus Train Wreck Memorial

One lion is roaming the woods, but the other lion was captured easily by its trainer. He first cowed it, and then tied a rope around its neck and secured it to a log, where it has been quietly lying all day, viewing the turbulent scene below. Keeper Jenks was endeavoring to subdue a king of the forest, when the ferocious king seized the keeper and tore off his kneecap.

All the animals that were saved roamed around loose, seemingly content with their freedom, and not caring to abuse it by running off. The water buffalo, two camels, a dromedary, two elephants, a zebra, yak, hyena and many small animals from different parts of the world did not wander far from the wreck, although unrestrained. Many of the smaller animals were not injured, though their cages were crushed about them. None of them seemed at all nervous or excited, but browsed contentedly or wallowed in the creek nearby as through it was an every-day occurrence. A great many monkeys escaped chattering to the trees, where they looked down in wonderment, but were soon calmed by sweetmeats and tied. The alligators were stretched on the ground as if dead, but a rub along the nose with a stick would show them wide awake.Unscheduled Stop


Book: Unscheduled Stop (Tyrone Area Historical Society).

Several historic photos and contemporary article.

Contemporary description of disaster.


Looking for the animal graveyard

Recent article

Walter L MainCircus poster 5

Circus poster 1Circus poster 2

Circus poster 3Circus poster 4

Walter L Main circus folks, 10 years later (1904-5)
Walter L Main circus folks, 10 years later (1904-5)
Older book about the wreck
Older book about the wreck

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  1. Jeff

    Thanks for the info and links on this. We live up the mountain near Sandy Ridge and recently saw the memorial for the wreck. Amazing that the train stayed on the tracks at the horse-shoe curve near Gardners, and came off so close to Vail. Local history is fascinating.

    April 27, 2015
  2. Kim Esber
    Kim Esber

    This is something my mother told me about when I was young. I had totally forgotten about it until seeing this post. Thank you!!!

    Kim Esber

    November 15, 2016
  3. wilson fisher
    wilson fisher

    Karen, Thanks for sharing your blog on the alarming but notable train wreak. I presume that this horrific accident was probably the most sensational historical event to have taken place in Snyder Twp. I’m impressed with your prolific authorship. Are you still writing ? Best, Wilson

    June 2, 2024

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