Potsdam recalls great circus train wreck of 1889
POTSDAM — One hundred and thirty years ago, Potsdam still can’t look away from “the great circus train wreck of ’89.”
On Aug. 22, 1889, a Barnum & Bailey Circus train, en route to Montreal from Gouverneur following a performance, derailed, leading to a six-car crash and the death of horses, camels and “a trick mule.”
What caused the crash was not determined, although an Aug. 23, 1889, Times article noted the train, which was riding the R.W. & O. and Grand Trunk railroads, may have encountered a flaw in the iron of the railroad tracks.
The article was found in a journal by Josiah L. Brown at the Potsdam Public Museum. Brown was an aged resident and authority on local history as well as a contributor to the Courier, according to his May 22, 1918, obituary in the Courier & Freeman.
In his Aug. 22, 1889, journal entry, Brown wrote it was about 10:30 p.m. when the rumor spread that one of the trains was off its track; however, it wasn’t until the next day that he was able to confirm the disaster.
“After breakfast I went down and found that the accident was appalling, 5 cars were ditched and 27 dead horses lay around 1 trick mule and 2 camels,” he wrote.
He went on to describe “Arabs” who were wandering about and injured animals that were hitched, including elephants that “stood in a row swaying back and forth.”
Acting Assistant Supervisor Frank P. Brown of the R.W. & O. railroad was on the train when the accident occurred, according to the Times report, pasted inside Josiah Brown’s journal. Frank Brown said the train was “running only at a fair rate of speed, with every indication of a safe run, when suddenly there was an ominous dragging and then a crash, followed by shrieks and groans from animals and human beings. The train came to a stand still quickly.”
That crash took place at what is known as Clark’s Crossing, where the tracks cross over Route 56, two-and-a-half miles north of the village. The road was then known as Potsdam Norwood Road, Potsdam Historian and Museum Curator and Director Mimi Van Deusen said.
“The train was a three-part train,” Van Deusen said. “I think they were at 15-minute intervals.”
The first train carried all the tents, wagons and equipment along with all those who helped to assemble the tents; the second train, which carried the animals and trainers, came next — that’s the one that derailed.
According to a May 10, 1963, Courier & Freeman article, which originally called it the “the great circus train wreck of ’89,” said the third train had been halted.
“A brakeman had grabbed a red lantern and raced back to warn the engineer before the train rounded the curve,” the article said. “This fortunate action kept the circus workers and performers from injury.”
There was a blend of reports on exactly how many animals died, including between 23 and 33 horses, several camels and the trick mule.
It was late and dark, making the cleanup and rescue difficult. It was reported a bonfire was built at safe distances from the wreck in order to shed light over the “ghastly scene,” the Times reported. “The Arabs were at first a terrorized crowd, but when they found that none of their party had sustained injuries, they worked bravely in rescuing others, though many a superstitious American mistook them for ghosts as they stalked along in the darkness.”
Multiple reports described the scene as one of confusion that lasted into the following day.
“The cars are crushed and twisted into all sorts of shapes and piled up on the track in a seemingly hopeless entanglement,” the Times article stated.
The cleanup included a mass burial site between Route 56 and Pleasant Valley Road, where the track crosses again, Van Deusen said.
The elephants, which were in the first car that derailed and not hurt, were taken from the car and, as Josiah Brown wrote in his journal, were reported by the Times as “swaying their bodies angrily as if displeased at their unusually long confinement.” It was also reported that J.A. Bailey, P.T. Barnum’s partner, was at the scene. He was reported as having said that while the fiscal losses were only estimated at the time, money could not replace the horses killed, as it took two years of training them after the right kind had been secured. According to another article pasted inside Josiah Brown’s journal, the crash was cleared by 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 23, 1889, allowing trains to pass. At 4 p.m., the two circus trains passed north, making their way to Montreal, followed by three delayed passenger trains.
The wreck was reported to have cost Barnum & Bailey $58,000, and at least 2,000 people from Potsdam and Norwood were reported to have visited the scene.
Van Deusen said that over a century later, the crash has become a local legend that the townspeople own, which is why it’s still talked about today.
“It’s not that people love tragedies, but if a tragedy happens in your town, you own it,” she said. “We own the Barnum & Bailey Circus wreck. Potsdam owns it. It’s part of our heritage.”
In pictures of the scene housed at the museum, it’s an open field. Drive past the scene in 2019, and it’s just brambles covered with 10-to-12-foot scrubs. You look down the track and see nothing.
Van Deusen, while looking over the sepia photos from the crash, said they best described the confusion and exhaustion of the workers and circus folk.
“You see people kind of confused; they’ve been up all night and trying to deal with this,” she said.
But according to the 1963 Courier & Freeman article, P.T. Barnum, who was vacationing at a Paul Smiths summer resort at the time of the crash, was notified of the wreck and sent back a five-word message: “The show must go on.”