Monday, May 22, 2017

Th Last Circus and Other Circus Stories

On May 21, 2017 Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus put on their last show. For 146 years they entertained people throughout America. A few months earlier we saw them in Philadelphia. Tonight we're watching the reply of the last show on the internet. People who like trains are especially fond of the circus because the circus traveled by train up until the very last show. In my life there were two great traveling shows, the James E. Strates Show which was a giant traveling carnival and Ringling Brothers which actually used two trains, one for the Red Unit and the other was the Blue Unit. I had the pleasure of seeing all of these trains and as a person who loves trains, I can say this is the most rare and best train of all to see.

My first encounter with one was in the 1970s when I saw the Strates Show train rumble through on the tracks behind Canby Park. Those tracks were called the Market Street Branch. The line connected the B&O Railroad to the Pennsylvania Railroad in Wilmington and was only used by short trains that traded freight cars between the two railroads. The appearance of the carnival train there was just amazing. It was really long and there were many passenger cars with folks hanging out the windows. My imagination raced thinking about all of the places they get to see, all of the miles on the rails, and the adventure that life must have been.

I saw the Strates Shows train pretty regularly because it came to Wilmington annually and also played at the Delaware State Fair in Harrington. No experience was ever so personal as when it slowly rolled through on my trains behind Canby Park. In 1984 I graduated high school in early June and about the very time the Strates Shows were playing at the old Cinema 141 Drive-in Theater at Prices Corner. At the time anyone could walk or ride a bicycle through the access road at the rail yard. I was there watching the who carnival unload and struck up a conversation with one of the foreman who was also watching to make sure nobody screwed up. I told him it seemed like an awesome lifestyle and how I thought about riding the rails with the carnival. He offered me a job and said I could start right away. He said I would have to report to the office and fill out paperwork, work the show, then be prepared to travel and leave town.

One of my childhood fantasies was right there before me. There were a multitude of problems with this notion of leaving town on the carnival train. I just finished trade school and was ready to set off to be a power plant engineer, I loved the Wilmington & Western RR, and I never lived anywhere but my house in Canby Park. So there I was with the chance to let wanderlust take me away and I flinched, I backed down. I passed up on the job and stayed the course. I knew there were no boilers with the carnival and it was a hard life. I knew getting married, having kids, and buying a house were also not going to happen if I became a carney.

I saw the circus and carnival trains on and off for the next three decades. Each time was always exciting but none was ever as exciting as the time one rolled through Canby Park. I always envied the men and women riding onboard and I saw the circus a few times and went to the carnival too.

As of this moment the Strates Shows still sends its equipment around by rail but he passenger cars have been gone for a few years. Ringling Brothers is dead and the train has already been auctioned off with the various cars leaving from the final show to their new owners. One of my Facebook friends, Jason Sobczynski, bought the pie car and has plans to preserve it. A friend and former Wilmington & Western volunteer, Heywood "Woody" Massara, started his railroading at the W&W in the 1960, got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad, and wound up working for Ringling Brothers as a train master in charge of one of the trains as it traveled the country. Woody has been retired for years but he still knows a lot of the people there. He is taking it very hard.

I see the passing of the circus as another big change in my life, something I experienced and people in the future probably wont. There are a lot of things piling up in my life, penny candy, playing in the neighborhood as a small child, riding in the car without seat belts, riding a bicycle without a helmet, and many others. Some of the changes are good for sure, others bring a bit of sadness. The passing of the circus is one of those for sure.


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