The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

February 5, 2012

Tragedy at McCann’s Crossing

Geneva circus owner Walter L. Main suffered heavy loss in 1893 crash

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Staff Writer

— Frank Train had grown wearly  of traveling with the Walter L. Main Monster Show, based in Geneva City and Trumbull Township.

Train, an Indianapolis resident, had been with the show for several years and was well respected in the circus industry as a ticket seller and treasurer, the roles he played in Main’s operation. But on Saturday, May 27, 1893, Train told Main that he was resigning and handing over the accounts, tickets and money to E.C. White. Train wanted to go home.

It was early in the season, and Main depended upon Train’s experience to make sure the show ran smoothly. He thus coaxed Train into staying at least until the circus reached Lewiston, Pa., on May 30. After that, he’d be free to go home.

The morning of Train’s last day with the circus thus found him riding inside the ticket wagon, which was lashed to one of the 14 flat cars on which the wagons and animals traveled. Train insisted upon sleeping in the ticket wagon rather than a sleeper car; naturally, the treasurer wanted to be close to the money and its intake valve, the ticket window, even as he slept.

Shortly before 5:30 a.m. Train awoke to a sickening sensation. The circus train, which was supposed to descend the mountain into Tyrone at a maximum of 15 miles per hour, was accelerating far beyond the safe speed. The telegraph poles flashed by the ticket wagon, which was beginning to rock back and forth as the train barely hugged the rails of the Tyrone and Clearfield Railroad.

James Strayer and John E. Eddings also were having a hard time holding onto their seats on another circus wagon. The Houtzdale buddies had hitched a ride on the train earlier that morning, hoping to get some work with the circus and see the show. As the rocking and speed increased, the men scrambled off the wagon and onto a canvas, where they waited for the inevitable crash.

Soon, the train was running at 40 miles per hour, far too fast for the sharp curves and damp rails. As the entourage passed McCann’s Crossing and encountered a sharp reverse curve, all 14 of the flat cars left the tracks and plunged down a 15-foot embankment at the Tyrone end of the curve. As the Houtzdale men felt their car leave the track, they both made a jump to safety. Eddings scratched his face when he hit the ground, but otherwise survived. Strayer fell a few feet from him. Eddings reached out to his buddy, who was talking but couldn’t move. An hour later, Strayer was dead.



The human toll



Wagons broke free from the flat cars and piled up one upon another, the force, for the most part, reducing the beautifully crafted cages on wheels to kindling wood. The rail cars, fresh from the factory in Youngstown, were likewise reduced to scrap metal and wood.

Train, the treasurer, moaned for help. He was trapped under the rubble and life was seeping from his body.  Seeing their lodge brother’s plight, about 30 Knights of Pythias members who worked for Main prioritized his rescue. For the next two hours, they lifted, grunted and pushed in a valiant effort to free Train from the debris.

“Hurry up, boys, if you’re going to do anything for me, or I’ll die,” Train moaned.

Die he did, even as the last piece of timber was removed from his wooden prison.

According to the New York Times article of May 31, 1893, there were at least three other human deaths in the crash, the deadliest circus train accident up to that point. They were:

n William Heverly, a brakeman from Tyrone. “His head was crushed to a pulp,” reported the newspaper. Heverly, 33, was married and the father of three young children;

n Charles Lock, of Newport, Ky.; and

n Barney Multaney, a showman, of East Liberty, Pa. (another source lists him as William Multainy of Geneva).

William Evans and Louis Champaign were mortally injured and died after being taken to the hospital, according to the “Walter Main’s Route Book, Season of 1894.” Not all sources recognize these men’s deaths, however.

At least two other men are listed as fatalities in some reports: a cook by the name of Willie Brannon, and a William Thomas Lee, born in China but residing in Nebraska. About a dozen were injured — one man had his ear nearly torn off.

Additionally, a wrecking crew worker by the name of Robert M. Gates died when a rope being used to remove debris snapped and struck Gates in the chest.



The equestrian toll



The human toll was not nearly as bad as it could have been, however. Most of the people attached to the show were traveling in four coaches at the rear of the train, where air brakes were evidently in use. Most of the circus cars did not have this modern safety provision, however.

Walter Main was among the circus people traveling in the rear coaches and was one of the first off to survey the carnage. Main, barefooted and wearing only a nightshirt, coordinated the rescue effort. His feet were soon cut and bleeding from the splinters and sharp railroad ballast.

The sight of his prized animals mangled and trapped by the debris or scattered across the mountainside dead or dying was exceeded in horror only by their pitiful, heartrending bellowing and wails.

The cargo included dozens of horses, several water buffalo, two camels, a dromedary, two elephants, zebra, yak, hyena, monkeys, several lions, two tigers, snakes, alligators and many small animals.

The most dramatic loss was among the horses, some of which were killed outright, but most of which suffered broken limbs or other fatal injuries and had to be shot.

Among those euthanized on site were five pure-white, pink-nostriled beauties described as “elegant  performers.” “Flake,” a fire jumping horse of great fame and leader of the trained horses, was badly wounded. Its final performance on that mountainside was a heartbreaker as the beloved creature tried to rise up on its once-strong limbs, only to collapse in pain.

The New York Times described the scene:

“In a place not 20 feet square lay the bodies of eight horses and a trick pony and its young foal. In another were five horses, and close by was a crushed box car, with an inextricable mass of horses, harness and timber impossible to picture. All were dead, and their positions showed that some, at least, had struggled hard for a short time. Others had not moved. The cars had caught them fairly, and as one of the hostlers said, pointing  out one horse, ‘Poor Chicago, he never knew what struck him.’ Scattered over the field were the bodies of other horses that had staggered away with broken limbs and internal injuries, and had been shot to put them out of their misery.”

The equestrian death toll was placed at 53, according to a June 7, 1893, Geneva Times article. About three dozen of the dead horses were work animals. The others were show horses and included Dick, Tag, Sid, Jim, Ted, Plow Boy, Maud S., Eagle, Fannie, Daisy, Beaver and Houston. Of the 66 horses, colts and ponies that survived, most every one suffered an injury, some of which were quite severe.



Tigers and lions!



The wreck released a plague of wild animals upon the countryside. The huge snakes slithered away onto the mountainside, never to be sideshow wonders again; the caged birds embraced the open sky; small animals limped into the meadow and forest; and monkeys scampered up the trees. Alligators stretched out near the cars and feigned death, but were very much alive.

Most worrisome, however, were the three lions and assorted tigers, hyenas, bears, panthers and man-slaying ape that survived and were on the loose. Two of the lions were soon recaptured, but the third put some distance between himself and the disaster before being encountered by a Mrs. William Lyson, who, hearing of the wreck from her telegrapher husband, decided to investigate.

Encountering the lion, she turned to run in the other direction, only to be faced down by a large hyena. Mrs. Lyson screamed so loudly she succeeded in scaring away the beasts.

Meanwhile, one of the tigers made a meal of an injured “sacred ox.” The victim, badly wounded, was torn apart by the tiger as the circus members watched in horror.

The tiger then headed for a nearby farm, where a woman was milking a cow. Startled by the sight of the tiger, the woman took off running and the tiger attacked and killed the cow. While still devouring the “quivering meal,” a farmer appeared with his rifle and  brought justice upon the beast. Thus declaring that big-game  season had just opened, the farmer headed into the mountains to find  the panther. He didn’t find it.

A 17-year-old acrobat from the circus single-handedly captured and held at bay a Royal Bengal tiger. He kept the beast subdued with a stick for five hours before the recapture was completed. A lion keeper came upon one of the jungle kings and attempted to subdue it. The lion retaliated by ripping off the man’s kneecap.

The monkeys were easier to round up — sweetmeats were used to coax them from the trees. The elephants, water buffalo, camel, zebra and several other animals were content to stay near the wreck and were easily rounded up.



The accounting



All told, the financial loss was estimated at around $150,000. Blame for the crash would be placed upon the speed of the train, which caused it to jump the track. As to why the train was going so fast, there were several explanations, but nothing definitive. The engineer and fireman testified that the train was never out of their control and that the derailment occurred when a wheel broke on the tender, causing that car to drop on the ties and the rails to spread, which sent the following cars over the embankment.

With the situation stabilized and as many of the injured animals that could be saved attended to, the task of burial began. The horses and other animals were laid to rest in a ditch seven feet deep at the site of the tragedy. The bodies of the locals killed in the crash were returned to their families on the next train out of Tyrone.

Frank Train’s body left Tyrone on the Pacific Express the following morning. The Tyrone Lodge of Knights of Pythias, the Elks and representatives of the Tyrone Masons escorted the body from the undertaker’s place to the train station. Walter Main’s band led the procession. As the body was placed on the train and the cars pulled away, the band played “Nearer, My God to Thee.” The circus people stood by with bowed heads; the women wept aloud. Main, a showman never at a loss for words, “wept like a child for the departed companion and esteemed assistant.”

Main’s band was called to duty again later in the day, when William Heverly was laid to rest.

With those matters concluded, Main turned his attention to rebuilding the circus. He had a long list of engagements committed, and Main, ever the showman, was not about to let death stop the show. Further, he now had dozens of unemployed circus workers and friends who, on top of losing their animals, were about to be unemployed. Main was not about to add that hardship to their plates.

New wagons, fresh animals and rail cars began arriving in Tyrone. The advance man headed to Geneva, N.Y., to announce the imminent arrival of Walter L. Main’s Monster Show with three rings, two stages and a hippodrome. Within nine days of the tragedy, Main opened his new circus in Tyrone with half-price admission, 25 cents.

Walter L. Main was back in business, but the tragedy and sorrow that he experienced on that mountainside would stay just a few miles behind the circus wherever it travelled and eventually overtake it in Geneva 13 years later.

View images of the wreck at http:/files.usgwarchives.net/pa/clearfield/photos/circus-train-wreck.txt