Sawdust and Spangles/Chapter 4

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Sawdust and Spangles by William Cameron Coup
Moving the Big Show

IV


MOVING THE BIG SHOW


It requires several months of hard labor to prepare any show for the road, even those already organized, for, as a rule, all shows "lay off" during the winter. With few exceptions the horses are allowed to "run out," and all the wagons and paraphernalia are stored in convenient winter quarters provided for the purpose. The wild animals are taken from their traveling cages and placed in more commodious ones. The manager then decides on his route for the coming season. This, in itself, is an arduous labor, for the cost of transportation becomes, necessarily, a most important consideration in his calculations.

The manager of a large show, however, can do this with comparative ease, since he does not fear opposition so much as does the manager of the small show and, consequently, may choose his own territory, while his small opponent must skirmish around to get out of the way of the larger show.

Therefore, the route of the big show is completed on paper not later than the first of February, and the first agent, usually the railroad contractor, begins his duties. Such a show as I am describing is perfectly safe in laying out its route thus early and advertising its days and dates for months in advance. And, having done this, woe betide any smaller concern which elects to show in the same neighborhood, for the larger show will immediately send an advance brigade and literally flood the country with their bills. Brigades of this kind are called "skirmishers," and are kept in readiness to jump to any point where their services are needed to fight any kind of opposition. They thus uphold a sort of monarchical right in the territory and prevent, if possible, the success of the lesser attraction. This makes it really far more difficult to manage a small show than a large one, as the latter has "the right of might," while the lesser shows are continually forced in each other's way, to their own detriment and often to their complete financial disaster. A large concern in a prosperous season clears an immense amount of money, but, on the other hand, a disastrous season is bound to result in an enormous loss.

THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO MOVE A CIRCUS BY RAIL

A few weeks before the time for opening the circus season the horses are taken in, stabled, groomed and fed with grain to get them “hard” and in good condition for work. The wagons are overhauled, painted and gilded, and, if necessary, new ones are built. The various agents are by this time hard at work, each having his particular duties to perform.

Previous to 1872 the “railroad circus” was an unknown quantity. Like all other circuses of that day, the big show of which I was the manager traveled by wagon. During our first season our receipts amounted in round numbers to $400,000, exclusive of side shows, concerts and candy stands. Of course we showed in towns of all sizes and our daily receipts ranged from $1,000 to $7,000. Finding that the receipts in the larger towns were frequently twice and three times as much as in the smaller ones, I became convinced that we could at least double our receipts if we could ignore the small places and travel only from one big town to another, thereby drawing the cream of the trade from the adjacent small towns instead of trying to give a separate exhibition in each. This was my reason for determining to move the show by rail the following season.

To this end, therefore, I at once telegraphed to the superintendents of the different railroads asking if they could accommodate us and guarantee to get us to the various towns in time to give the exhibitions as advertised; and in order for us to do that it was necessary, I informed them, that we be landed in a town as early as six A.M. From some of the railroad superintendents came the reply, "Cannot furnish switch room," and from others, "Give further particulars." After a great deal of correspondence I went to Philadelphia and interviewed the officials of the Pennsylvania Company. I urged and argued and argued and urged, until they said I was the most persistent man they had ever seen, and even told me they would pay me if I would leave them in peace. This, however, did not suit my purpose, and I hung on until I finally made arrangements with them.

After much preparation we eventually fixed upon New Brunswick, N. J., as our first loading place. We were new at the work and so commenced loading at eight P.M. and finished the job at eight A.M., with no extraordinary incidents except the breaking of one camel’s back—the creature having the misfortune to slip off the “runs.” From New Brunswick we went to Trenton, where I had hired Pullman cars for our performers and band, and cheaper cars for our laborers and other attachés.

THE SPARTAN HABITS OF THE OLD-TIMERS

Our experience with the vast crowds of the season before had given us the idea of building two rings and giving a double performance. This, of course, doubled our company, but it kept the audience in their seats, since they were precisely as well off in one part of the canvas as in another, whereas in the old one-ring show we found it impossible to prevent the people who were farthest from the ring from standing up. They would rush to the front and thus interfere with many other people. This two-ring arrangement seemed to obviate this difficulty, and, as it at once hit the popular fancy, it proved a great drawing card for us and others, for within a few months smaller showmen all over the country began to give two-ring performances. Indeed, from that time it seemed to me that the old one-ring show was entirely forgotten.

It was quite laughable, during the earlier portion of the season, to watch the expression on the faces of our performers when they came on to join us and were shown the Pullman cars which were to be their homes for the next six months. “It is too good to last,” remarked one. “The expense will break the show,” said another. To their surprise, however, it lasted that season and has lasted ever since. Previous to that they had been in the habit of taking breakfast at any hour from midnight to four P.M., according to the number of miles they had to travel; but now all is changed, and an era of luxuriant comfort has become established for them. For many months, however, at the dawn of this epoch, the performers viewed their regular meals and sumptuous surroundings with a comical seriousness most ludicrous to behold.

Small shows had, prior to this time, traveled to a limited extent by rail; but not with accommodations like ours. Such shows consisted of seven or eight cars, whereas ours numbered sixty-one. All of these, with the exception of the sleeping cars, we had hired from the railroad company.

SEVEN HEARTBREAKING DAYS ON THE LONG ROAD

It has always been a mystery to me why the railroads build themselves cars scarcely any two of which are of uniform height. Our heavy wagons would be pushed up on “runs,” and, on being pushed from one car to another, would frequently crash through the rotten boards composing the bed of the car. This would cause vexatious delays.

The reader cannot possibly form any idea of the amount of labor involved in teaching our men to become proficient in loading and unloading. It is a positive fact that I never took the clothes from my back from the time of first loading until we reached Philadelphia, our seventh stop! During all that time I was constantly teaching the men the art of loading and unloading, giving attention to the moving of all the wagons, chariots, horses, camels, elephants, etc. We reached Philadelphia tired and exhausted with the seven days’ hard work.

I was also mentally fatigued by my partner’s opposition and his requests to abandon the scheme; but at this point I realized more than ever the benefits that would accrue from this great departure, and I determined to stick it out to the end. I went to the superintendent of one of the railroads on which we were to travel to Baltimore and Washington and told him I must have a lot of cars of uniform construction at any price. These he succeeded in getting after considerable trouble. I then made up my mind to try it as far as Washington, and if I could not by that time get everything to run smoothly I would abandon it. We reached Wilmington without mishap and gave our exhibitions—three each day. It must be remembered that we had advertised three shows daily, and so far had given them; indeed, we did throughout the season, but that was the first and only year that such a feat was attempted.

I told the railroad superintendent that if we could manage to load in Wilmington by two A.M. and reach Baltimore at five A.M. it would be a success. He ordered the road cleared, and we arrived in Baltimore with the first section only a little late, and, with a little extra energy, we had the parade out on time and opened the doors to the morning performance at ten A.M. The trip from Baltimore was easily made, but from there we had to run over heavy grades up and down to Frederick, Md. In order to load we had to remove all the brakes, and this the yardmaster refused to do. I showed him my contract, wherein the company had agreed to remove all brakes, but he still refused, so I finally resorted to strategy.

I invited him to a restaurant, and while we were absent, by a prearranged movement, Baker, the boss canvas-man, wrenched the brakes off, and by the time the yardmaster and I returned the train was almost loaded. Of course I pretended to be very angry at such conduct, but our point was gained. As the brakes were easily replaced we made the next stop all right.

PERFORMING BY DAY AND TRAVELING BY NIGHT

I determined to have a train of cars built for our special purpose, and accordingly visited all the shops in the east; but I could find no one willing to undertake the job on such short notice. Finally, at Columbus, Ohio, I made the acquaintance of a thorough man of business. He was conducting the car shops there and was prepared to execute any order I might give him. In a short time I had made a contract with him, and in thirty days a train of cars was built. They were of uniform height, with iron extensions reaching from one car to another. These improvements made the loading and unloading mere play. I then heard of some palace horse cars at Cleveland. These I bought. I had them freshly painted and lettered, “P. T. Barnum’s World’s Fair.”

When our men, as they came into Columbus to exhibit, saw that train awaiting them, they sent up such a shout as has seldom been heard. Now we had Pullman cars for the artists, sleeping cars for the laborers, box cars for the extra stuff, palace cars for the horses and other large animals, such as were required for teaming, parades, etc., and platform cars for wagons, chariots, cages and carriages. Thus the Herculean task of putting the first railroad show of any magnitude on its own cars was successfully accomplished.

Little, indeed, do the managers of the present day know of the untiring energy and indomitable perseverance necessary to accomplish that feat. The railroad people themselves were utterly ignorant of our wants, as we ourselves were in the beginning. Frequently, as at Washington, the yardmaster would order us to load one car at a time, then switch it away and commence on another. To load a train in this way would have taken us twenty-four hours! Finally, however, system and good order came out of chaos. Once properly launched on our season, we were able to give three performances daily, and quite often made jumps of one hundred miles in one night. The scheme, as I had predicted, completely revolutionized the show business, and has been adopted since, not only in this country, but by the French and English circus proprietors in their travels in Germany. It also greatly advertised us, vast crowds assembling at the depots to see us load and unload.

ON A RUNAWAY CIRCUS TRAIN

I once had a very thrilling experience while riding in the cab of the locomotive pulling our train from Indiana, Pa. This station is on one of the branches of the Pennsylvania Railroad, high up on the mountain, the grade there being exceedingly heavy. It is, I believe, conceded to be one of the steepest grades on that system. There is also a horse-shoe bend, or curve, similar to the well-known one on the main line. While standing on the platform, about the time the last car was being loaded, I was accosted by the engineer, who inquired if I had ever traveled on a locomotive and if I would like to take such a trip. I replied that I would like to do so, and boarded the engine with him. A few moments later the signal bell was rung and we pulled out into the darkness. I placed myself so as not to be in the way of the engineer and fireman and was soon lost in meditation.

The sensation was indescribably weird and thrilling. The scene was shrouded in darkness, and, as we flew along the road, the only discernible objects were the trees, which seemed to me like giant sentinels saluting as we flew past. Now and then we caught glimpses of lights in the mountain valleys, but they passed by like a streak of lightning, so rapidly were we going.

'How far can your practiced eye discern objects on a night like this?" I asked the engineer.

"Only a rod or two," he answered.

"In that case," said I, "you could never stop the train to prevent a collision should an obstruction present itself?"

"No—not with these brakes," he replied.

As he said this his face blanched and he whistled hard for down brakes. Finally I heard him exclaim: "God help us! We’re running away!"

On, on we sped down the decline at a speed that was something frightful. The engine rattled and shook, and several times appeared to be almost toppling over. It was impossible to stand, and I held on by the window ledge for dear life. Down the mountain we sped altogether helpless! We had no control over the train, loaded down, as it was, with toppling chariots, with horses, animals, elephants, camels and human freight.

PANIC AMONG THE ANIMALS

Evidently the animals instinctively knew the danger, for above the rattle and roar of the train could occasionally be heard some of those strange trumpetings which proceed from an animal only in moments of danger—often just before a storm or cyclone. Momentarily I expected the whole train to be thrown from the tracks and down the mountain side. By the occasional streaks of light that flew past us I could see the blanched faces of both the engineer and fireman, and knew that they fully realized our awful danger. Both of them, however, kept perfectly cool, and I tried to imitate their example. How far I succeeded I do not know, but I do know that my nerves were strung to a higher pitch than they ever were before.

A blinding rainstorm added to the horror of the situation, and, with the speed at which we were traveling, each drop seemed to have the penetrating power of a shot. Quick as a flash the thought passed through my head: What if we meet a train? Just at that moment we sped past Blairsville at the junction of the branch road and the main line. The station lights seemed mere specks. As we struck the switch the engine jumped and almost left the track. Looking back we could see the rear lights of our train swaying in the path like a ship tempest-tossed at sea. Our speed seemed to increase as we flew along the main line.

We had gone twenty miles when a whistle was heard ahead.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Another train," replied the engineer; "it will pass us now," and as he was speaking the reflecting lights of its engine appeared, apparently not six rods from us. With lightning rapidity the trains passed each other and the "windage," to use a nautical term, nearly took my breath.

During all this time, which positively seemed hours, my thoughts were not of the pleasantest. On, on we dashed, the engine frequently jumping as it struck something on the track. It seemed to me a miracle that the train did not lurch sheer over some one of the terrible embankments. The fireman was not engaged in tending the fire. It was unnecessary. We were all mute spectators of the scene being enacted by this silent machine—the marvelous and lifelike invention of man. Gradually, at last, our speed began to slacken. We had reached a grade. The danger was past and our lives were saved!

A SINGLE TRACK AND A BROKEN RAIL

We were still moving ahead at the rate of thirty miles an hour when—crash! through the window came some object. Once more the whistle sounded "down brakes," and in less than a mile the train came to a stop. Shortly afterward we heard shouts in our rear, and the man who had flung the missile through the cab window came running breathlessly, and said that less than a mile ahead of us was a broken rail that would undoubtedly have wrecked our train. Knowing that the express train was due in about an hour he had been running back to the station to detain it, when he had met our "wild" train and, realizing the danger, had done all he could to prevent a catastrophe.

Back sped the man to the station to warn the express, leaving us between what were undoubtedly two horrors. The station was fully a mile away. Suppose he could not reach there in time! There we were on a single track, a broken rail ahead of us, an express train due at any moment behind us. Slowly we pulled up to the broken rail and at once replaced it with a new one, for we always carried extra rails on our train for cases of emergency. The track walker succeeded in getting to the station in time to stop the express, though luckily it was not quite due. We ran back to Blairsville and switched on to a side track.

There we found that the second section of our circus train was due at nearly the same time as the express train, and it was an anxious quarter of an hour that we spent in righting things. When, however, the second section did come in, I found they had been more fortunate than the first section. They had taken the precaution to add to their train several cars belonging to the railroad company, which were fitted up with better brakes than ours, some of them being supplied with both new air and common brakes. Then as a consequence of these precautions the train had descended the mountain under perfect control. I learned a lesson from that experience, and lost no time in fitting all our cars with air-brakes. I wish I could remember the name of the engineer. A braver man never handled an engine or went into a battle.

It may not be generally known that all wellregulated roads employ a certain number of men as track walkers, whose constant duty it is to patrol every inch of the road and report the slightest irregularity of rails, road-bed, etc. On this particular night the track-walker's lantern had gone out, and the only expedient he could think of was to throw a stone through the cab window. I have often shuddered to think of what the consequences might have been had not his aim been a true one.

THE BRONCHOS' CHARMED LIFE

On another occasion, while going into Clinton, Iowa, with the biggest show I ever owned, we were running about twenty miles an hour, when the locomotive jumped the track and struck a tree. The shock threw all the cars of that section on their ends. The Mississippi River was on one side of us and a springy hill on the other. Here in this narrow place stood the cars, laden with animals of all kinds. It was truly an awful situation. We began to break up the cars in order to extricate the poor dumb brutes. We were compelled to hitch ropes about the horses' necks and pull them out, only to find perhaps that their legs were broken or that they were otherwise hopelessly injured. No fewer than thirty-five of my best horses were thus lost. The reader must remember that, as the cars had been thrown on their ends, in each horse car twenty horses were thrown into a struggling heap. Strange to say, the bronchos seemed to have charmed lives, for not one of them was hurt, and I was enabled to give a performance that day in spite of the accident.

The elephants were piled up in much the same way as the horses, and in order to extricate them it was necessary to strip the cars completely—a labor in which those huge animals assisted us. The camels were unhurt. The loss, in crippled animals and destruction of cars, amounted to several thousand dollars.

I cannot leave the subject of moving the big show without going back to some of my earliest pioneer experiences.

No other human being can realize like the showman the volume of dread hardship and disaster held by those two small words, "bad roads." At the time of my breaking-in we were passing through a section of the country in the southwest, over such wretchedly constructed highways that the slightest fall of rain was sufficient to convert them into rivers of mud. The heavy wagons would sink to their hubs in the mire and the whole train would be stopped.

Then followed a scene too picturesque to escape the attention of even the poor fellows who were half dead from lack of sleep. By the light of flaring torches a dozen big draft horses would be hitched to the refractory wagon. Inspired by the shouts, curses and sometimes the blows of the teamsters, the animals would join in a concerted pull that made their muscles stand out like knotted ropes. But often a battalion of six teams would fail to start a wagon.

OLD ROMEO TO THE RESCUE

Then the shout would go down the line for Romeo. In a few minutes the wise old elephant would come splashing through the mud with an air that seemed to say, "I thought you'd have to call on me!" He knew his place and would instantly take his stand behind the mired wagon. After he had carefully adjusted his huge frontal against the rear end of the vehicle the driver would give the command, "Mile up!" Gently, but with a tremendous power, Romeo would push forward, the wagon would start, and lo! the pasty mud would close in behind the wheels like the Red Sea.

So vividly did this oft-repeated picture impress me that it is as clearly before me now as it was forty years ago. Sometimes, when an elephant was not available, the wagons would be literally pulled apart, and when the break came the horses would fall sprawling into the mire, only their heads visible above the surface of the mud.

But the poor horses were not the only sufferers from bad roads. The men came in for their share. Very distinctly do I remember the night when we were about to cross a slough. Some of us were dozing in our saddles, others sleeping soundly on the tops of the wagons which carried the tents. Suddenly the shout was heard from the man in the lead, "Help, there, boys! I'm going down in the quicksands! Throw out a line, lively!"

We knew the voice. It belonged to Hickey, the wagon boss, who was a favorite with the men. Instantly the fellows tumbled from the wagons and rushed forward. The torches showed Hickey sunk to his armpits. A man of ready wit and action threw a rope and the sinking man caught it and passed the noose over his head and under his arms, knotting it
Sawdust and Spangles (103).jpg

"THEN THE SHOUT WOULD GO DOWN THE LINE FOR ROMEO."

so that it could not slip and cut him in two. By that time a team of horses had been hitched to the other end of the rope.

"All right! Easy, now!" came the order from Hickey, and the team was carefully started. Watching those horses strain on the rope made me hold my breath in expectation that the poor fellow would be actually drawn in two. But, finally, the grip of the mire loosened and he was hauled out to safety.

AN UNEXPECTED MIDNIGHT BATH

Perhaps the most disheartening of all bad-road experiences is that of losing the way—a thing which happened with perverse frequency. Just imagine yourself a member of such a caravan. You have slept four hours out of sixteen and are crawling along in the face of a drenching, blinding rainstorm—soaked, hungry and dazed. The caravan has halted a dozen times in the forepart of the night to pull out wagons and repair breakdowns. But it halts again, and the word "lost" is passed back along the line of wagons. This means retracing the route back to the forks of the road miles in the rear. Many an old circus man has wished himself dead on hearing the word "lost" under these conditions.

After one of these disheartening experiences, when we were obliged to "right about face" and drive the poor, jaded horses back over the same road along which they had made their useless but painful pilgrimage, I clambered up to the top of the tent wagon, stretched out on the jolting, shaking heap of canvas, and was soon oblivious to fatigue and discouragement. My next conscious impression was that of a sudden crashing of timbers, the squealing of frightened horses and "the sensation of falling. Then I felt myself plunging into the icy waters of a little stream into which the heavy show wagon and all its contents had been precipitated by the breaking of a bridge. It seems almost miraculous that I should have escaped falling under the mass of tents on which I had been sleeping, but in some way I was thrown to one side and contrived to reach the shore in safety.

It is usual, in arranging the season's route, for a circus to make all the "big jumps" on Sundays; and it not infrequently happens that from three hundred to five hundred miles are covered between Saturday and Monday. This arrangement is very convenient in many ways. It may take you out of a country that is overrun with opposition shows into one where you may have the whole field to yourself, or it may take you to a part of the country where the climate has forced the harvests and therefore placed more money in circulation than usual.

As a general thing circus employés are not in love with Sunday runs for, commodious as their cars are, they are not exactly fitted up to enable all occupants to loll lazily around and enjoy a luxurious ride. If the day happens to be rainy, most of them lie in their beds and content themselves with reading, with an occasional chat, argument or light lunch, and in this way endeavor to pass the time as best they can. If, however, the day happens to be a fine one, then at daybreak comes a mighty exodus from the sleeping cars. Cozy nooks are singled out and made comfortable by pressing into service all available shawls, rugs, etc. Those physically strong enough to brave the exposure make for the tops of stock and box cars where, lolling at ease, they discuss sundry topics of interest and revel in the ride through the country. Others select places underneath the chariots and cages which are loaded on the flat cars, and thus, sheltered from the sun, spend a delightful time. Once, at least, during the day, a stop of a couple of hours is made to enable the horses and animals to be fed and watered, and advantage is taken of this interval by the performers and other attachés to stretch themselves and also to cater to their own personal wants. Both comic and serious accidents are frequently the result of carelessness during these runs, as the following examples prove:

In one long run between Springfield, Mo., and Mattoon, Ill., one of our men was standing erect on the top of a car, when a telegraph wire caught him under his chin and cut his head completely off, as though done by the surgeon's knife. On that same trip my watchman, Nelse, had the misfortune to have his straw hat blow off his head. The hat rolled gently along the top of the flat car and finally rolled off and fell on the side track. Immediately the watchman jumped to the ground, snatched up the hat, and leaped unhurt on the last car, although the train was making nearly twenty miles an hour. Probably the hat cost him originally fifty cents.

Of all the Sunday runs I ever took, however, I recall one that was especially pleasant. It took place back in the seventies, and was a run of some three hundred miles across an Indian reservation between a town in Kansas and another in southern Texas. The day was beautiful, and as we bowled along the prairie I felt that the "stillness"—comparatively speaking—(so seldom enjoyed by circus people) was most refreshing. I don't suppose there ever was a country-bred boy who lived long enough to forget how, in his younger days, the Sabbath seemed, always, a day of stillness and quiet. The cessation of all business and the chiming of church bells produced an effect that could not fail of indelible impression; and that Sunday morning ride over the reservation brought back the scenes of childhood to many a rough and rugged circus man. Towards noon we halted and erected cooking tents and stables. The horses and animals were looked after and a dinner was cooked by the attachés. After dinner they formed congenial knots and strolled around while the "hash slingers" washed the dishes and the men once more loaded up. We carried at that time an excellent troupe of Jubilee singers, and with the light heart and impressionable feelings of their race, they burst into song, alternating their quaint camp meeting songs with others in which the majority of the attachés could join. The band, too, caught the infection and produced their instruments and we enjoyed a vocal and instrumental feast. Just at dusk, when the stars were beginning to appear, before starting for the night's run, the "Jubes" sang "Nearer, My God, to Thee" to the full accompaniment of the band and with a refrain swelled by every one able to sing. I have, in the course of my travels, visited many grand concerts and operas, but their most solemn and sacred effects are dwarfed into absolute insignificance compared with that of this impromptu performance. The rolling prairie, the beautiful trees, the perfect weather, the joyous spirits of every one present, the melodious voices of the Jubilee singers, and the grand strains produced by thirty skilled musicians, combined to produce music such as man seldom hears—that, on account of its spontaneity, thrilled the hearts of all present, then seemed to go right up to heaven, and "die amid the stars."

"All aboard!" is shouted, and every one climbs into the car. The whistle sounds and off you go, past miles of beautiful scenery and occasional Indian villages. Everything is quiet and every one seems to be "drinking in" the beauty of the scene or sits lost in thought. No more singing or playing. All seem to be so solemnly impressed with that last grand hymn that the silence is unbroken. That Sunday run will always stay in my memory! With quiet "good-nights" one after another slipped off to bed to awake to another day's hurry and bustle.