Read “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury and you will yearn to experience the sort of traveling circus and carnival it described.
Oh, how exciting! A traveling show comes to town in the dark of night. Young boys sneak out to watch the roustabouts set up. Town’s activities come to a halt as performers, freaks and wild animals take over. Camels and Elephants down Main Street were just the start.
Magic is everywhere. And it all used to happen, right here in Ogden, just as Bradbury describes.
Circuses were part of life 100 years ago. They came through town several times a year and it was a huge event every time.
There was nothing new, even then, about circuses, per se. They were, and still are, just performances in a ring. Think “Circus Maximus” in Rome, where Christians ended up as lion kibble. Or Cirque du Soleil, still playing Vegas all the time.
Circuses came to Utah with the pioneers. I find newspaper references to the Great Rocky Mountain Circus, playing in Salt Lake City, as early as 1858.
But those were smaller, stationary affairs. There were traveling shows too, they were limited by how much a wagon pulled by horses could carry.
Then came the railroads.
Circus trains could haul hundreds of workers and performers, wild animals and massive tents. They could travel fast: A circus’s multiple train sections would arrive before the dim breaking of dawn, overwhelm the small city with magic and diversion, and then disappear.
One, the Great Pacific Railroad Circus, reportedly traveled with the Union Pacific railroad as it built its way towards Promontory in 1869. A single article in the Deseret News later that year refers to it, but I can find little mention of it elsewhere.
Ogden, a small but centrally located railroad town, was ideally situated for rail-traveling entertainment. A story in the 1917 Ogden Standard said Circus Day was a great holiday unheralded by calendar makers, but no less exciting or festive.
If you’ve ever watched the Disney film “Dumbo” you know the drill: The circus pulls in, workers haul out tents and set them up on a convenient local empty lot or meadow. Then all the performers dress up and the entire circus parades through the central part of town, attracting one and all to the two shows they were about to put on.
Everyone came. This was a western farm area, with no TV, no Internet, no nothing except local church and civic entertainments. An exotic show from the circus would attract everyone.
When done, the workers would pack it all up and head to another town the next day, and they wasted no time doing it. I went to a tent show in Roy a couple decades ago where they were starting to take down the tents while the final acts were still in the rings.
In 1880 the Cole’s Circus came through Ogden and got extensive coverage in the Ogden “Junction.” The reporter’s language caught the mood:
“This morning early, crowds of people commenced to arrive from the settlements round about Ogden, not only to attend Cole’s Circus but to witness the GLORIOUS PAGEANT which took place at about 10 o’clock this morning. The procession was one glittering line of equipages, cages of wild animals, snakes, etc., gaily caparisoned animals and spangled riders.”
A subsequent story talked about “the fine trapeze and horizontal bar performers, the ‘funny business’ by the clowns,” and so on. Performing stallions, bicycle tricks, and even electric lights, if you can imagine.
I’m not sure there’s an accurate count of how many circus shows were touring the country at any given time, but it must have numbered in the dozens. Looking through newspapers just from 1916 through 1919, however, I found seven different circuses that visited Ogden: Ringling Brothers, Cole Brothers, Haggenbeck-Wallace, John Robinson Shows, Barnes Circus, Sells-Floto Circus and Buffalo Bill’s Original Wild West Show, and Barton-Bailey World Celebrated Shows.
You can read up about all those, and more, at this web site, a complete (so it hopes) history of circus in America: (link).
What was it like? Actually, we do have a few picture. (And it is darn frustrating that we don’t have more. Hundreds of folks in Ogden had Kodaks back then and must have snapped shots. Where are they?)
On July 7, 1916, an Ogden man named Charles McCarthy was in an upper story office of the Eccles Building, 24th and Washington, when the circus parade of the John Robinson’s Shows went by.
Mr. McCarthy was an inveterate photographer — he left hundreds of negatives to Weber State University’s Special Collections. His granddaughter, Jan Puckett, Ogden, has found hundreds more, personal stuff, among the bags and boxes he left.
While scanning them in, I found these amazing shots: The John Robinson’s Circus Parade, heading south on Washington to the circus grounds located at 27th Street And Washington Avenue. Camels pull a wagon, and elephants walk by in single file, draped with banners from local businesses who, no doubt, paid for the ad space.
One of the city’s street cars is standing, waiting, and rows of newfangled automobiles line the street. The circuses typically organized local marching bands to take part in these festivals, and he shot several of those as well.
But all was not festive. While Mr. McCarthy was having fun on 24th Street, a tragedy was unfolding just a block north.
In 1916 public transportation involved a lot of cars, yes, and even a motorcycle is visible. But horses and wagons still did a lot of work.
Malcolm A. Keeter, a teamster working for the Weber Lumber Company, was going south on Lincoln Ave. with a team of horses pulling a lumber wagon. He turned west onto 23rd Street just as the circus elephants were making their way down that same street prior to turning onto Washington.
According to witnesses, Keeter “had gone only a short distance when his horses caught sight of he pachyderms and became frightened. The animals dashed wildly down the road, but by dint of hard pulling and cool headedness the driver kept them and the long lumber wagon from crashing into automobiles filled with the people viewing the parade.”
He almost made it, too. Near Wall, by the Scowcroft building that still stands, the horses swerved, “throwing a front wheel of the wagon against the rear of an automobile belonging to Henry Gwilliams.”
The collision threw Keeter to the ground. The wagon tipped and crushed him.
Keeter’s wife, Lois, sued the circus for neglect and won a judgement of $16,675. Whether she ever collected is unknown — the circus was in winter quarters a thousand miles away and never responded to the suit.
Such disasters were sadly common. Circuses usually had workers go ahead of their animals in city streets, warning people to keep skittish horses away.
When Ringling Brothers came to Ogden in August, 1904, a Mrs. Lofgren, Huntsville, hitched her horse to a buggy and went to town to watch the parade. She stood at the corner of 22nd Street and Washington. Her horse stood quietly enough as all the animals passed, but spooked when the steam calliope at the end of the parade cut loose.
As the Standard reported, “the horse leaped into the air, broke from the buggy to which it was attached, and dashed behind the lead team on one of the circus vans and frightened the team of six horses so that the animals swung around and into the great crowd of spectators standing on the corner, and in the stampede that followed many persons were trampled down.”
Six adults were seriously injured including one, Amanda Flynn, 76, who suffered a broken hip and wrist and, because of her age and already poor health, was not expected to recover.
Ringling Brothers was found not liable in the incident, but gave cash compensation to the injured anyway. It even paid their medical bills.
There were lighter moments, too.
When the Cole Brothers Circus came to Ogden in 1880 folks were
so excited that some got a little crazy.
Says the newspaper, “it is stated that the other day a resident of this city went to a store on Main Street, bought a sack of flour on trust, took it to a place a few doors away and sold it as a sacrifice for cash, to take his wife and children to the show.”
Then there’s the story of “A young fellow from Hooper,” who discovered just how efficiently a circus can pull up stakes and get out of town.
The newspaper says this man “came to Ogden yesterday, determined to see the circus. He got pretty full of ‘bug juice’ and after being in the circus a few moments, last evening, went out. This morning about 3 o’clock he woke up and found himself lying where the outside ropes of the ‘big tent’ had been.
“But the circus had vanished like a beautiful dream. So had his $5 hat and a pair of good boots. When he arrived at Hooper, about 4 o’clock, hatless and barefooted, he felt awfully cheap. And well he might.”