This week in history: Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train crash stuns Chicago

On June 22, 1918, an empty train slammed into a group of train cars belonging to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in northwest Indiana. Today, it’s considered one of the worst train crashes in U.S. history.

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The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train crash in Hammond, Indiana

A Chicago Daily News photographer captured the scene of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train crash in Hammond, Indiana. The de-railed train and railroad tracks are visible and a large crowd of people are standing around.

From the Sun-Times archives.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

In the early 20th century, the arrival of the circus in town disrupted everyday life, sometimes closing schools and businesses so everyone could attend. Even in major cities like Chicago where residents never lacked entertainment, the sight of a circus tent or train would have been a welcome one.

During the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, two trains carrying the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus chugged on from Michigan City, Indiana, to nearby Hammond. The first arrived safely, but the second pulled off the main tracks to fix a hotbox. Five wooden cars of the second train — several of them filled with sleeping clowns, acrobats, performers and their families — stayed on the main track while the engineers fixed the problem.

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At about 4 p.m., an empty train came barreling down the tracks, ignoring stop signals and the lights of several engineers trying to catch the driver’s attention. Nothing worked. The train crashed into the five cars, causing a deafening sound and a terrible fire.

When reporters for the Chicago Daily News caught up to the action, authorities reported 100 people dead, according to that day’s paper.

“At noon nearly 60 bodies had been removed from the mass of ashes and twisted metal into which the five sleeping coaches had been jammed,” the paper said. “More than 150 dead and injured were taken to Gary and 75 dead and injured were removed to Hammond. It was believed that 50 more were still in the funeral pyre, literally burned to ashes.”

The crash caused tanks of acetylene gas to explode, which sparked fires that spread quickly in the area.

“To add to the holocaust,” the paper reported, “water was unobtainable and the fumes of the gas and intense heat of the flames made it impossible for volunteer resources to approach within 150 feet of it. The crew of the circus train and the men of the troop train available worked heroically, but there was so little they could do.”

Some performers did manage to survive. One Daily News reporter interviewed acrobat Alec Codd at Mercy Hospital in Gary.

“It was like the cracking of an egg shell,” he said. “My legs doubled under the pressure of the walls of the car as they caved in. I felt a terrible pain in my back. Everything was dark, and, for one minute after the big crash that woke me up, everything was silent.”

Codd attempted to reach his sleeping wife, whose hand was “still warm, but motionless,” he said. He couldn’t move. Something pinned him down, and every time he tried to move, “a piercing pain shot through my body.” Just before the flames engulfed his car, a fellow performer freed Codd and dragged him out of the wreckage.

“All around me, there was pandemonium,” he recounted. “A strong wind was fanning the flames, which spread rapidly. And from underneath the mass of piled-up coaches, it flashed through my mind that it looked like a funeral pyre. I heard the groans and moans and the death cries of these whom I had worked with so long. Then I lost consciousness.”

D.W. Donohue, superintendent of the Chicago division of the railroad, and L.W. Landman, general passenger agent, told reporters they believed the empty train’s engineer, a man called Sergeant, had either fallen asleep or suffered an attack of paralysis. No other option would explain why he’d missed signals and the circus engineers telling him to stop from miles down the track.

Other experts, however, had different theories. Several railroad officials, who declined to be named, examined the empty train following the crash and noticed that the air brakes of the Pullman coaches had not been set on the wheels. Because military officials usually used the empty train to move soldiers serving in World War I to the east coast, the unnamed railroad officials suspected sabotage.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train wreck remains one of the most disastrous in history, with 86 officially dead and more than 100 injured. Next to the main story, the Daily News ran a list of names of those that died along with their respective roles in the circus.

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