When the circus comes to town - with a bang

Potsdam's 1889 circus train wreck
Published: Aug. 26, 2022 at 6:11 AM EDT
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WATERTOWN, New York (WWNY) - It’s August 22, 1889, and Barnum & Bailey, the Greatest Show on Earth, was just leaving Gouverneur en route to Montreal.

The circus traveled in three trains. The first held the equipment, the second held the animals, and the last held the people.

It’s nighttime, so everyone is sleeping. Until: “The first train got through, and then came the second train,” Potsdam town and village historian Mimi Van Deusen said, “and the axle broke somewhere along when it crossed the road or just before. So, train derailed. Two of the train cars telescoped and just crushed into themselves into the engine.”

Six train cars were mangled. Twenty-eight show horses, two camels, and a trick mule were killed in the wreckage, an estimated loss of $58,000 for Barnum and Bailey. But it could’ve been much worse.

Potsdam historian Mimi Van Deusen holds a photo of the aftermath of a circus train wreck near...
Potsdam historian Mimi Van Deusen holds a photo of the aftermath of a circus train wreck near Potsdam in 1889.(WWNY)

“The brakeman of the second train had the foresight to run down the tracks with his little lantern and tell the next train to stop and the next train stopped just as it got to the wreck,” Van Deusen said, “so it could’ve been worse, even.”

Despite the late-night wreck, the people of Potsdam came out in droves to help.

“Nearby farmers started coming over, people started building fires so people could see, people started bringing lanterns, and they started sorting stuff out,” Van Deusen said.

A nearby farm owned by the Clark family took in the surviving animals. Not only was this a help, but it was also a bit of a treat to the folks who otherwise never would have seen the circus.

“It did take something like 10 days to get things cleaned up, get the wreck out, and get things taken care of,” Van Deusen said.

Eventually, though, Barnum & Bailey packed up to move on, leaving dozens of their beloved animals buried near Clark’s crossing where the incident occurred.

Self-proclaimed as the greatest show on earth, the circus certainly left a lasting impression on Potsdam, New York.