Wallace Brothers Circus Train Car
Transporting the Wallace Brothers Circus required not one but two separate trains. After last night’s exhibition at Charlotte, Michigan, the two trains left for Lapeer over the Grand Trunk Road, the second leaving a half hour after the first.
It was 3:45 o’clock when the first section pulled into the west end of the Grand Trunk yards in Durand on August 6, 1903. A red light was hung on the rear car to stop the second.
Engineer Probst of Battle Creek, who was running the engine of the rear train, says he saw this light and applied the air brake. To his horror it refused to work. He reversed his engine, but the momentum of the heavy train behind was too great, and with a crash that aroused all of the town near the yards, the two trains met.
The engineer and the fireman both jumped from the second train once they realized that the collision would be inevitable. Both men escaped with minor injury.
Three cars of the stationary first section were telescoped, and the engine and five cars were demolished.
23 people were killed immediately or shortly thereafter, a few others would die later from their injuries. Several animals including an arabian horse, 3 camels, one great dane and an elephant named Maud were also killed.
According to the Owosso Argus Press, “The scene that followed is indescribable, the cries and groans from the injured persons and frightened passengers, the roars from the terrified animals and the escaping steam aroused the whole city, and hundreds rushed to the scene to assist in every way in the sad task of caring for the dead and wounded.”
Many of the victims were laid out on the field as fast as they were recovered from the debris.
Doctors and nurses from around the county were called to treat the injured. A temporary hospital was set up in the Hotel Richelieu in Durand. Various doctors, some sources say as many as twelve, worked for many hours on the wounded, which reached nearly 100. A special train was called to take some of the more severely wounded to Detroit hospitals.
All available drays and express wagons in the vicinity were used for ambulances. For hours after the accident there was a steady procession of these ambulances from the accident to Hotel Richelieu. The dining room of the hotel was used as an operating room. A score of wives and daughters of the rescuers volunteered as nurses, and worked with vigor all through the morning.
More than 20 injured were pinned down in the wreckage so they had to be chopped and pried out. Their groans and cries were pitiful, and spurred the wreckers to redoubled efforts.
Wallace Circus performers were on the rear of the moving train, and escaped injury. This is the second wreck that the Wallace shows have suffered within a month.
The surviving circus employees pitched their tents and camped near the scene of the wreck until the Wallace Circus train was ready to proceed again.
Immediately following the wreck, many of the circus employees boarded train cars to calm down surviving animals and transport them to the tents to help calm them down.
Those that were killed were buried in a nearby field.
The wrecking crews of the railroad system were notified and had the track cleared and regular service restored by 9:30 pm the same night.
The wreck was one of the worst in the state’s history and maybe the nation’s in 1903. One of the deplorable features was the inability to identify some of the dead. The bodies lay in state for several days and were viewed by hundreds of people from all over the country. Many a sad scene was enacted as a distant relative would enter the room, view the long row of dead and find their lost son, brother or relative. Ten bodies were unclaimed. They were buried in Lovejoy Cemetery. Of this number, one of the bodies were claimed, taken up and removed to New York state. Nine board signs were prominent in the cemetery, over each of the unknown victims.
Later on, the circus company held a fundraising drive, no one was allowed to donate more than $1, to pay for a monument to those who died. Enough money was raised to pay for a monument to be erected.
In Memory of the Unknown Dead.
Who Lost Their Lives in the
August 6, 1903
Durand also held an elaborate dedication ceremony in memory of those who died and for the monument that was erected.
Life Goes On : An Account of the Next Wallace Circus Exhibition After the Wreck
All were lined up along the streets this morning to see the fine parade of the Wallace circus, the first since the wreck last Thursday.
It is always an attraction and there was no lack of crowding and pushing along the main streets. All eyes were turned on the gorgeous costumes and the glittering wagons with their displays of wild animals. The hippopotamus was in full view, and the children had to be lifted a bit to see the monster, which was lying flat in the tank of water which formed the bottom of the wagon. The zebras, tigers, and lions drew out exclamations, and the bands made the blood rush faster as the military like procession swept by.
Among the features which are of special interest at the Wallace shows this afternoon and evening are Madam Marantette and specially trained horses, including the world’s highest jumper, “St. Patrick.” This horse duplicated the record he established of 7 feet 5 inches at Madison Square Garden at the afternoon performance here today.
The Heras family of acrobats, seven in number, who were brought to this country by the Wallace shows from Florence, Italy, performed in full evening dress this afternoon.
The four Collins, eccentric whirlwind dancers, presented a striking novelty for a circus performance. This quartet of wonderful dancers enjoys the distinction of being the only act that was ever held over for a longer period than two weeks at Hammerstein’s Paradise Roof garden in New York. The Collins appeared there for six consecutive weeks and were the vaudeville hit of the metropolis. They were immediately engaged as a special feature of the Wallace shows and have created a furore every place they have appeared.
The Marion Zouaves, consisting of 16 handy young veterans of the Spanish-American war, in an exceedingly difficult and graceful fancy military drill pleased all.
Then there were the four Silvertons, fancy single high wire artists; the Stulk family of bicyclists, 12 in number; Capt. Owen Hudgen and his troupe of performing seals; the four Nelsons, the ten Dellomeads,… the happy Hooligan troupe of comedy skaters, and others.
The Great Wallace Brothers Circus Train Disaster, August 6, 1903.
Durand, MI Circus Train Wreck, Aug 1903, GenDisasters.com
Shirley Gorman, 1903 Wallace Circus Train Crash, Michigan Roots, 2002