1918 Circus Train Wreck

Ivanhoe, Indiana – 22 JUNE 1918, 0400. Early reports are that 61 are dead and 129 injured after a troop/equipment train rear ended a circus train on the Michigan Central Railroad. Three circus train cars were destroyed, and a fourth heavily damaged. After the crash, the kerosene lighting system on the circus train caught fire, making the situation much worse.

The circus train was taking the Wallace-Hagenbeck Circus of Peru, Indiana, to a show in Hammond. The train’s consist was as follows: four sleepers, five stock cars, fifteen flat cars and a caboose. At the time, all steel construction for railroad cars was not the norm. As such, the circus train consisted of mainly wooden cars with steel frames. According to witnesses, the circus train had pulled into a switch where it stalled due to a hot box*. The flagman, as was standard operating procedure, went back to the main track to set fuses warning of the circus train’s predicament.

*A “hot box” is a railroad term for an overheating axle bearing. These bearings used to be packed in a box of oil soaked rag or cotton. When the oil ran dry, the bearings would become so hot from friction that it could catch the entire train on fire.

The other train, consisting of 21 empty troop cars, missed the fuses and plowed through the four sleeper cars that were at the rear end of the train. After the wreck, two stories began to be circulated about exactly what happened. But, there was also the actions of the engineer and the fireman after the crash that began to create more questions.

Fireman Gus Klaus, of Michigan City, Indiana, states that the engineer “positively ignored” five sets of signals that were set to get the dead-head troop train to stop. As reported in the Munster Times of 24 June 1918, “he passed the caution sign post, the block system, the flagman who threw his fusee into the cab window, the flares stuck in the ties and the two red lights on the way car of the standing circus train.”

Engineer Alonzo K. Sargent, of Jackson, Michigan, stated that “he was prevented from seeing the signal on account of smoke from an engine on the E. J. & E. track, parallel to the Michigan Central track there.” He went on to state that “he remained in the cab while the big engine was ploughing through four circus cars before it stopped.” It should be noted, at this point, that newspaper articles of 23 June 1918 mention that the engineer was arrested the night of the wreck in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and brought back to the Hammond/Gary area at the request of the Lake County Coroner.

Investigators believe one of two things had to have occurred at the time of the wreck. One, the engineer was asleep at the throttle. Or two, he wasn’t in the cab. Attorneys for the Michigan Central railroad promise “he will tell his story to the coroner at Hammond” tomorrow (25 June 1918). “Today he is in a state of physical and mental collapse at Jackson, Mich., he home.”

The official testimony of the fireman was reported as follows. “I was busy shoveling coal, watching steam and water and didn’t know where I was. I saw the fuzee about eight car lengths ahead and the red lights of the way car. Then the crash came. I went out and laid down beside the track. Then I got into one of cars of the troop train. I went back on the special. I thought the engineer was on his side of the cab. I couldn’t see, it was dark.”

Munster Times, 24 June 1918, pp 1
Munster Times, 24 June 1918, pp 3, part 1
Munster Times, 24 June 1918, pp 3, part 2

The above snippets from the Munster Times of 24 June 1918 show the testimony before the Lake County Coroner. Most confusing is the claim at the bottom of the article on the right about how the Michigan Central lawyers are saying that “the methods of the officials of Lake county are not to the liking of the railway company in that they did not proceed legally.” The lawyers claim that the Gary Police Department did not have the authority to wire the Kalamazoo Police Department to have the engineer arrested. And yet, in the next paragraph, the same lawyer states “we know that the engineer was asleep on the job, and had been asleep for a mile and a half before the collision.”

The wreck of the Wallace-Hagenbeck (W-H) Circus train also led to the best of its competitors. At the time, the W-H was second only to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey (Ringling) in terms of size and popularity. Other circuses, including the Ringling, donated performers and equipment to the W-H so that the show could go on. The W-H missed only two performances due to this crash. The first was to be in Hammond, the scene of the wreck.

The Lake County trial of locomotive engineer Alonzo Sargent began at Crown Point on 14 April 1919. The engineer admitted at trail that he fell asleep at the throttle. As reported in the Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) of 15 April 1919, “he admitted it on the witness stand.” Sargent stated “I closed the cab window after we passed Tolleston. It was chilly and then I dozed.” The trial ended up with a hung jury. It would be reported on 5 May 1919 that the state was dropping the manslaughter case against the engineer.

The ultimate death toll in this crash was estimated at 85. The injured were reported as 142. Of those killed, only 12 were positively identified. The rest were burned beyond recognition having been caught in the kerosene fire. The lawsuits against the railroad started almost immediately. The problem was that the Michigan Central, technically, wasn’t responsible for the train. During World War I, an entity called the United States Railroad Administration had taken over all of the railroads in the country for the federal government. Reports of the lawsuits, mentioned in the Indianapolis Star or 29 November 1919, list damage suits of nearly $1 million against the USRA. (The death toll in this article is listed as 100, with 80 injured.) It is the above mentioned testimony of engineer Alonzo Sargent that was to be used in court during the lawsuit.

Of all the newspaper articles that I had searched through, there are no pictures of the actual wreck that I have seen. I can imagine several reasons for that. Just now that I had planned on including them…if I could find them.

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