Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Six-year-old Harry Snyder had slept fit­fully and awoke at dawn to the first silts of sunlight piercing his bed­room window. He heard the softly muffled rumble of a train descending the nearby mountain. The sound grew alarmingly louder with an ur­gency that sent a chill through the young boy’s body. He leaped out of bed and rushed to the window to see the train gliding around the curve in front of his farmhouse.

The engine rounded the curve and, much to Harry Snyder’s surprise, the trailing cars were not loaded with coal but, in­stead, carried the gaily painted cages and gaudily colored wagons of a circus. The engine just cleared the curve when, to the boy’s horror, the first car toppled over and plunged down the steep embank­ment, pulling each succeeding car crashing down upon the one in front. The thundering noise of rupturing steel and splintering wood reverber­ated throughout the valley as the lunging cars ground over each other. Finally, the devas­tation was total and com­plete; the last car plummeted down the mountainside and the momentary quiet was interrupted only by the screech­ing of slowly spinning wagon wheels until they, too, came to rest. Then, from the wreckage came an anguished and pitiful moan that signaled the death of the Walter L. Main Circus. And young Harry Snyder was witness to the accident and resulting carnage.

The circus was the pride of Walter L. Main, born in Chat­ham, Ohio, on July 13, 1862, son of a horse trader and farmer. Walter grew up lov­ing and handling horses. His father William was in charge of a team of horses that hauled the big top for a travel­ing wagon show while Walter was a young boy. The following year he hauled the band wagon with his own teams of horses. By 1877 William Main progressed to boss hostler of the Hamilton and Sargents New York Cir­cus and invited his son to join him in circus life. William Main by 1881 owned a circus complete with forty horses and an eighty-foot round top; Walter was manager, the youngest ever known. Midway through the season Walter became general agent and two years later father and son left winter quarters with the largest wagon show in America in tow: 114 horses, ten cages, two camels and one big ele­phant!

In 1884 William Main tired of the circus circuit, sold his operation and returned to farm­ing. However, two months of farming was too much for Walter and he created his own show with seven horses and a fifty-foot big top. He put out his first street parade in 1889 and closed the season in Boston with ninety horses. The next year he de­buted in Pittsburgh with 120 horses and closed in Geneva clearing $17,000, a staggering sum in circus work.

In 1891 Walter L. Main took to the rails with a ten-car circus and the next year increased the number to sixteen. By 1893, the year of the great circus train wreck, the Wal­ter L. Main Circus boasted seventeen large carriers aver­aging between seventy and seventy-five feet in length. That year the Walter L. Main Circus broke winter quarters at Geneva with great enthusiasm. On the train carrying the cir­cus were twenty-five show wagons, several chariots, bug­gies, a steam calliope and assorted vehicles. The marve­lous menagerie, probably one of the finest in the country, featured 130 horses, two elephants, two tigers, three lions, two panthers, “sacred cows,” camels. anteaters, an Australian agouti, “Man Slayer the Ape,” many snakes, and rare and colorful birds and monkeys. Sixteen cages housed the wild animals, and Snowflake, billed as the brilliant white stallion valued at a boggling $35,000, led a six-horse team. The troupe’s principal rider was the famous Tony Lawanda, and the first band was led by noted cornet­ist and conductor Franklin Montgomery Long. More than three hundred persons made up the circus complement.

The circus opened May 1 at East Liberty then played a number of western Pennsyl­vania towns, including Wash­ington, Braddock, Mt. Pleas­ant, Latrobe, Johnstown, Indiana, Apollo, Tarentum, Sharpsburg and Butler. On May 15 the entourage staged its Ohio appearance at Paines­ville, followed by Ashtabula and Conneaut. It returned to Pennsylvania playing in Franklin, Kittanning, DuBois, Punxsutawney, Johnson-burg, Emporium, Lock Haven, Bellefonte and, on May 29, Houtzdale. The tour as far as Houtzdale had been only moderately successful; torren­tial rains hampered most of the stands. A brief strike took place in East Liberty and at Johnstown a dressing tent caught fire, causing a panic. But the afternoon and evening performances at Houtzdale were well received and visitors departed to the stirring marches of the military cir­cus band. Immediately the cir­cus broke camp and loaded cars, equipment and gear onto railroad cars waiting on the siding adjacent to the circus grounds. The next perform­ance of the Walter L. Main Cir­cus was scheduled for Lewis­town the following day.

With the circus loaded, the railroad cars were formed by the engineer into a long, snaking train and pulled a dis­tance of a little more than five miles to Osceola Mills, the 1unction of the Tyrone-Clear­field branch of the Pennsyl­vania Railroad. Organized in 1856 to construct a line from Tyrone north to Clearfield, crossing a region rich in both timber and coal, the Tyrone and Clearfield Railroad was bankrupt by 1865. The Penn­sylvania Railroad leased the line and eventually purchased it through a subsidiary com­pany. Construction was diffi­cult in ascending the mountain from Vail at the base to Sum­mit at the top and two fills were required to make horse­shoe curves. The line was constructed with unusual twists and turns in order to over­come the rugged mountain’s elevation of 1,040 feet in 10 miles. Finished grades were as steep as 2.86 percent and the actual running speed for freight descending the mountain was 16 miles per hour from Summit to Van Scoyoc and 12 miles per hour from Van Scoyoc to Vail.

At Osceola Mills, a seven­-man crew prepared to move the circus train to Summit; be­cause of the considerable grade, the train was transported in three sections and reas­sembled at Summit. Engineer M.S. (“Red”) Cresswell surveyed the long train with misgivings and transmitted his apprehension to conductor William Snyder, suggesting that he request an additional engine for more braking power. With some reluctance Snyder wired the superintendent at Tyrone for another engine. After some deliberation, the superintendent replied that one engine could safely bring down seventeen circus cars: “Let’s save the expense of an additional engine and crew.” Unfortunately he was not told that these were new sev­enty to seventy-five foot cir­cus cars – about twice the length of standard railroad cars.

By early morning the train was ready to descend the steeply pitched mountain. Fol­lowing the engine were, in order, ten flat cars, three stock cars, a combination car, three sleepers and a caboose. Air brakes had been connected to seven cars. Hand brakes were applied by brakeman Wil­liam Heverly, positioned between the third and fourth flat cars, and three other crew­men applied handbrakes be­tween the combination car and the first sleeper, between the second and third sleepers and between the third sleeper and the caboose. The great, sinewy train started to drop down the east­ern slope of the Alleghenies at exactly 5:09 A.M. Wilderness paralleled the track and the engine’s headlight cast an eerie glow as it bounded from tree to tree. As the train rounded the curves, the morning sun penetrated the dense spring foliage. The train began picking up speed as the brakes started to lose their hold. Propelled by the moving force and sheer weight of seventeen heavily loaded railroad cars, the train sped around Big Fill Curve, through Gardner and, with screaming wheels sparking, around Van Scoyoc Horseshoe Curve. Just ahead was a gradually curving two-mile sec­tion with an awesome 2.86 percent drop terminating in McCann’s Crossing reverse curve. A few performers, rous­ing from their sleep, could sense that something was wrong, that the train was out of control.

With the whistle shrieking, the train thundered across McCann’s Crossing and bar­reled into the second half of the reverse curve. The en­gineer felt a thump and, looking back, saw the tender, followed by car after car, bounce off the track and plunge down the forty-foot embank­ment, each car climbing over the next, whipping flesh with splinters and twisted steel. All cars left the tracks until the combination car slid broadside down the damaged railway with the sleepers almost mir­aculously coming to rest against it and spared the drop down the embankment.

There was a momentary, stunning and deep silence. The circus people, led by Walter Main, who had been in the rear sleeper, raced to the car exits and down the track to the wreck-strewn mountainside. At first Walter thought it was a hold-up, but when he passed the combination car he gasped in disbelief. Shocked and sickened, he surveyed the crushed remains of his beau­tiful circus and exclaimed, “We are ruined and our brave men are dead.”

From the injured and dying animals came low and pa­thetic moans. Bewildered wild animals staggered drunkenly, not realizing they were free. One tiger jumped at a zebra but the zebra escaped with only a few gashes. The tiger then killed a “sacred cow” and escaped. Both elephants stood quietly, pulling up dumps of bloodied grass and tossing them in the air. Monkeys and birds chattered continuously from their tem­porary roosts high in the trees. “Man Killer,” the fero­cious ape, perched on a tree stump and hissed if the brave dared to venture near.

Inside the smashed cars was another story: inside were the injured and the dead. The circus people gathered around Main for instructions to bring order out of the tragic chaos. Mereb Main, Wal­ter’s mother and circus book­keeper, heard Frank Train calling from the crushed ticket car. She grabbed a broom and, swinging it about her, forged a path through the dazed wild animals to the car im­prisoning him. A beam lay across Train’s sunken chest. Sensing his fate he whispered to Mrs. Main, “I am dying. Would you send my body and effects to my widowed mother in Indianapolis, Indiana?” When the beam was hoisted two hours later, he was dead.

Moments after the wreck, Engineer Cresswell hurried to the telegraph office nearby and reported the catastrophe. A wreck-train appeared at the site within two hours and railroad crews worked with the circus personnel to extract four bodies mangled in the wreckage. Although brakeman William Heverly, stationed on the platform of the third flatcar, Jumped when he saw the impending disaster, he was too late to save his own life. William Lee of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Barney Mul­taney, from New York, were laborers who slept in the wagons, now pulverized. A Jim Strayer from Houtzdale had joined the circus the day before and his was the last body retrieved from the destruction.

Meanwhile, the uninjured circus people were also busy rounding up the wild animals. “Man Killer” objected vehemently to each attempt to rope him, but by approach­ing him simultaneously from the front and rear. a lasso was eventually looped around his neck and he was tethered to a tree. Two lions were se­cured but a third had to be destroyed. Performers scoured the brush picking up snakes and the circus women com­forted, as much as they were able, the injured and dying horses, many of which were performing animals. Among the casualties were the horses ridden by the legendary Tony Lowanda. Snowflake, the beautiful white stallion, was mortally injured, but Walter Main did not have the heart to destroy him; he died that evening. The marauding tiger that had dispatched the sacred cow did not end his menacing foraging. Escaping the area, he stole stealthily to a farm where he killed a cow being milked by a Miss Fri­day. Responding to her screams. a neighboring farmer and good marksman shot and killed the tiger while it de­voured the still­ quivering flesh.

Harry Snyder, the young eyewitness to the devastation, heard a rap on his door and urged his mother to answer the snake charmer’s request for coffee. Coffee was generously given and in return the charmer took the young boy to the site of the wreck. A lion was tied to a tree nearby but she said, “Don’t be afraid­ – the lion is as scared of you as you are of the lion.”

Ear1y in the afternoon a special train arrived to trans­port the injured to the Altoona Hospital. News of the wreck reached Tyrone and thou­sands visited the site. Many residents and businesses offered help; private homes were made available to the per­formers and business places invited the circus people to take what they needed, all with­out charge. Railroad officials met with Walter Main and assured him the company would cover all costs for the restoration of the circus train. Rebuilding and refurbishing the train exceeded $200,000.

By late afternoon large tents had been erected to tem­porarily shelter the circus workers and feed the animals. Arrangements were made to accommodate sixty-five show people at the Empire House in Tyrone. The wrecking crew continued searching for bodies and by late evening de­termined that all had been recovered.

Early on Wednesday the grisly task of burying the dead animals in a large trench began while cages were repaired for the captured animals. Wrecking crews began re­turning cars to the track in preparation for their move to Altoona where seventy workers had been assigned to make repairs. Repairable wagons and cages were also to go to Altoona. Late that evening the three circus train sleepers were moved to the Tyrone station but circus performers and workers stood silent watch at the wreck site to feed and take care of the animals.

The body of Frank Train was placed aboard the Pacific Express West while the circus’s first band played “Nearer Mv God to Thee.” At four o’clock the body of brakeman William Heverly was con­veyed to the Tyrone Cemetery accompanied by the sorrow­ful strains of funeral dirges rendered once more by the first band. Tyrone residents again lined the street to the cemetery an hour later when McNutt’s Negro Band, the circus’s second band, lead the cortege bear­ing the bodies of William Lee and Barney Multaney. While the band offered solemn dirges, Lee and Multaney were laid to rest as honored members of the circus family.

Yet one more death took place at the wreck site. Robert Gates, a member of the wreck crew, was killed when a rope snapped and struck him.

That same afternoon, Dr. E.D. Colvin, assistant manager, W. Fred Aymar, press rep­resentative, and J.D. Harrison, correspondent for the circus, established temporary cir­cus headquarters in Tyrone. Coroner Michael Poet immedi­ately impaneled an inquest jury which he convened at 7:00 P.M. Testimony was pre­sented by Engineer Cress­well who reported that the cir­cus train departed Summit at 5:09 A.M. with seventeen cars and a cabin and wrecked forty-six minutes later while running at 25-30 miles per hour. Just before the accident Cress­well noticed a slight jump of the train; then something on the first car broke, causing the tender to tear loose. He moved the engine a short dis­tance, stopped and then hurried to the telegraph office to report the wreck. He fur­ther testified that he had felt no alarm for the safety of the train which was running at a speed not unusual. All crew members agreed with him. Conductor Snyder stated that the train was properly and thoroughly inspected and only after such an exhaustive inspection did he agree to take it down the sharply slop­ing mountain. Everyone in the railroad crew believed the accident was unavoidable.

Tyrone became the hub of activity for the circus people who were openly received by the concerned townsfolk. The Tyrone Herald editorialized:

The Company one and all are perfect ladies and gentlemen and by their conduct have greatly endeared themselves in the hearts and sympathies of our people in their great misfortune, and if they should see fit to remain here and organize and give one or two or three exhibitions, their canvas would not hold the crowds which would come to see them.

By Thursday, June 1, order was coming out of the grue­some chaos. Arrangements were made to erect the big cir­cus tents in Conrad’s Park on East Twelfth Street with the horses and other large ani­mals to be housed in the 150-horse Sheridan Troop Armory located adjacent to the park. Just one block away was the Empire House where many of the performers were guests.

Thursday night at seven o’clock the inquest reconvened and 600 people thronged the Sheridan Armory to hear the continuing testimony. Wil­liam LaRae, acrobat and clown, musical director Frank­lin M. Long, J.D. Harris, a newspaper correspondent, Wil­liam Burke, a night watch­man (and former railroader who said the train traveled at 45 miles per hour), teamster George Meadville, and Philip Heidenfelter all believed the train was running too fast for safety. They testified to a rocking motion of the sleep­ing cars.

The big top was in place by Friday afternoon and performers once again practiced their acts. During the weekend the military circus band played a concert at St. Matthew’s Catholic School and offered spirited music between innings at the athletic grounds where the Tyrone team was taking the measure of the State College boys. Horses began arriving from the Indian Buck­skin Bill’s Wild West Show which was stranded in Indiana (Pa.) without funds to con­tinue its slated tour. Word was received that the Altoona shop repairmen, working around the clock, had com­pleted repairs to eight flat cars. And frightening reports cir­culated that escaped wild animals were being killed, the most outrageous of which was a rumor of a panther bagged in Shamokin in northcentral Pennsylvania. It was be­lieved that the panther had crawled into an open box car on a siding and was trans­ported to Shamokin where it was felled crossing the rail­road tracks. A more credible story, however, was of Ar­thur Gunsallus killing a black panther chasing cows on his farm in Bald Eagle.

The accident clid not inspire only good will. Frank Train’s prized gold watch turned up in the local pawn shop and was immediately sent to his mother. Just as mysteriously, a gold watch belonging to Heverly, the deceased brake­man, surfaced at the pawn shop and was redeemed and returned to his widow.

A third hearing was con­ducted by the coroner Friday evening. William Snyder was recalled and stated that air was supplied to seven of the fourteen cars. The engineer returned to the stand and denied that he had reversed the engine before the wreck or that he had said to young Manderville that he had looked for the train to go on the previous curve. Harry Miess, the fireman, also denied that the engine had been reversed prior to the accident. The jury met for the fourth and final time on Monday, June 5, and, after great deliberation, rendered the verdict that the accident was caused by the train’s rapid descension of the mountain.

The circus was making great progress in its speedy re­organization. It appeared that by Thursday, only nine days after the nightmare, perform­ances would be given in Tyrone, followed by perform­ances in Altoona. Red, white and blue posters appeared throughout the town trium­phantly announcing the per­formances at the reduced admission of twenty-five cents per person. The placards boasted “Newly Equipped and Reorganized, Continent Me­nagerie, three complete circuses in one, twenty Fun Frolic­some Gowns and twenty Soul Stirring Races.” And Thurs­day found the great Walter L. Main Circus big top packed to capacity!

All of Tyrone waited in awe for the circus’s grand entry; they were not disappointed. The proud townspeople eagerly awaited their “reward” for having generously taken the circus into their arms. The show commenced to the strains of the circus’s military band and the fabled Law­anda once again rode horses bareback. Trapeze artists and trained animals entertained the delighted throngs. Fol­lowing the antics of the popu­lar Grotesque Renos. the much-anticipated Hippodrome Race concluded the giant performance. When the show ended, the performers bowed to thunderous and appreciative applause, tears flood­ing their eyes – tears of gratitude for the town that had embraced each and every one in his moment of misery.

Standing near the band and feeling the same tumultu­ous emotions was Walter L. Main. Years later he recalled, “After fifty years it is a sol­emn moment to tell you that I am still alive and well, and that after this half-century I have not forgotten the unselfish kindness and helpful­ness on the part of your parents and grandparents during my dark hour of trial at the McCann’s Crossing, May 30, 1893, and to those who are still living and at the time rendered help and encouragement, I send a special mes­sage of thanks and grateful­ness, hoping we can meet again.”

Early the following morning the circus was loaded onto its rebuilt cars and hauled to Altoona, where it was set up at the Millville Circus grounds. The parade was exciting, even though it would be another full month until all the wagons had been recon­structed and refurbished. Two performances on both Satur­day and Sunday played to capacity audiences. On Mon­day, June 12, at approximately 2:45 A.M., the Walter L. Main Circus train passed through Tyrone on its way to Lewistown to resume the tour that had been so tragically interrupted thirteen days before. A few Tyrone resi­dents kept an all-night vigil to wave to the circus people as the darkened train quietly glided by.

The Walter L. Main Circus returned to Tyrone two years later on Sunday, May 26, 1895, and the route book details the occasion:

This is a beautiful little city at the fool of the mountains, on Tyrone and Clearfield R.R. where two years ago on morning of May 30, the Walter L. Main Snow train was wrecked, six men killed outright, besides a dozen others badly injured. Sixty valuable horses lay dead in a space less than 100 feet in width, others wounded. Animals of all kinds roaming at large, with all wagons, cages and cars (except sleeping cars) broken in thousands of pieces. In circus annals this is known as the greatest and most complete wreck of a circus train in the world. The press throughout the country was given full details, which was covered in the Walter L. Main Route Book of 1894, and we think that a lengthy account at this date would be out of place.

The arrival of our train in Tyrone, this beautiful Sunday morning brought back to many the horrible scenes enacted here two years ago. Those who were with us in 1893, and are still with the circus, explained to our new comrades with greatest elo­quence, of the kind of treatment they all received during the eight days they remained in Tyrone, from the citizens. Their doors were thrown open and all made welcome. In memory of those buried in Tyrone cemetery, a procession formed at 2 P.M. consisting of all attaches of the show. headed by Prof. F. Mont Long’s Military Band, and marched to Tyrone cemetery, to decorate graves of the two unfortunate canvas men and William Ebberly [Heverly], of the rail­road, who lie buried there. At Tyrone cemetery this procession was met by over 3,000 citi­zens, who climbed the hill in advance. Appropriate remarks were made by an accompanying clergy­man. Singing by lady members of the company, music by the band, graves were strewn with flowers, and men bowed with heads uncovered. The scene was a sad one, and each seemed deeply affected. In the afternoon Mr. and Mrs. Main and Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, drove out to the spot four miles distance, where the wreck took place. Noth­ing remains to mark the spot, except a few pieces of broken wagons and cars.

The route book entry for May 27, 1895, records:

There is no town or city in America where the Main show stands higher than in Tyrone, and this was proven by the fact that today we did the banner day of the season so far in 1895. Everyone from the country seemed to be in. “Little Daisy,” the pony, was the center of attraction in the menagerie. She was born the day preceding the wreck, and her mother was killed during the wreck and was adopted by another pony who lost her colt. Walter L. Main left at 5 P.M. for Geneva, Cleveland and Chicago.

Walter L. Main continued his circus until 1905 when he leased or sold his animals and equipment, but he peri­odically reentered the circus business. The King Brothers Circus leased the show title between 1918 and 1925. In 1930 Main owned and operated a “Motor Circus” which he leased in 1931-1932 to James Heren. The last visit of the cir­cus occurred in 1937 and, at the end of that year, Main re­tired forever from the show business circuit. He died No­vember 29, 1950, at the age of 88.

The Tyrone-Clearfield branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad was closed in 1970 and a few years later the railroad tracks were uprooted. With a four-wheel drive vehicle it is still possible to travel the old roadbed and experience the frighteningly steep grades and perilous curves that caused the annihilation of Main’s great circus train. A monument stands at the site of the wreckage and a housing devel­opment has been built near the land where the crashing cars eventually rested.

Why did the train derail?

A theory proposed years later claimed that the huge ele­phants shifted and their weight caused the first car to topple off the track. Even Walter L. Main somewhat concurred. But this answer remains rather questionable because in most rail circuses, elephants were transported in a stock car at the far rear of the train. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt, even today, that the train was going much too fast for such a mountain passage. Speed was the real killer.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the wreck, Archie Royer, principal clown of the 1893 cir­cus, offered his version of the “Wreck of the Great Main Show”:

Wait a Minute – let me see
Yes, Decoration Day 1893
Just 50 years ago that would be
It’s the date of the wreck of the Great Main Show
I was there so I guess I ought to know
5:30 in the morning it struck this blow
There were 7 good men all killed outright
I’ll never forget that awful sight
A hundred horses and animals died
30 cars went over the moun­tain side
The entire show was a tangled mess
I never saw the like I must confess
Frank Train our Treasurer died in the smash
He sold the tickets and handled the cash
Those men all died right where they lay
Never even had a chance to pray
It was the saddest event of my life I know
That terrible Wreck of the Great Main Show.

 

For Further Reading

Aungst, Dean M. When the Circus Came to Town. Lebanon, Pa.: Applied Arts Publishers, 1969.

Bogue Virgil T., and Alice Bliss, comps. “Early Circuses of Ashtabula County.” Ashtabula County Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin 13. no. 4 (December 1966).

Fox, Philip Charles, and Tom Parkinson. The Circus in America. Waukesha, Wis.: Country Beautiful, 1969.

____. The Circus Moves by Rail. Boulder, Col.: Pruett Publishing Company, 1978.

 

Fred E. Long is a retired engineer of the Bell Telephone company of Pennsylvania with a long-time interest in local history. A past president of the Blair County Historical Society, he is currently vice-president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Historical Societies and a member of the board of directors of the Railroaders Memorial Museum and Fort Roberdeau. He developed an interest in circuses as a playing member of the “Windjammers,” an organization dedicated to the preservation of circus music.