Bandwagon, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct), 1944. Note: Only some articles are included in this online edition. Illustrations are not included.
By Will W. Brock, CHS. Bandwagon, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct), 1944, pp. 1-3.
The Schenectady fire started at 2 p.m. over the centre of the back-end “blues” - just as Ed. Shipp, the Equestrian Director was about to blow the whistle to start the afternoon show.
It was a very small patch of fie on the top, two or three feet across the eaves and within arms reach of anyone standing on the top seat. This fact supported the belief that the fire was of incendiary origin.
With allowance for plenty of bad luck, the Ringlings were always quite lucky, for in this case, the lot faced a wide thoroughfare and on the opposite side there was a large modern fire station, and they had lines of hose and chemicals and their entire equipment battling the fire from the very start so the big top was the big loss.
Although an estimated 15,000 people were in the seats, there was little alarm and no panic. The good management of the Ringlings was everywhere apparent. Be it remembered that on the death of James Bailey, the Ringlings took over the entire Barnum property and the Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth was at this date under the immediate supervision of Mr, Otto Ringling. Everywhere loud-voiced men were calling to the crowd to take their time in leaving the seats, but to leave them at once.
It was but a matter of minutes until the seats were vacated, the crowd standing on the track and in the rings, watching the canvassmen who had climbed the top and were trying to put the fire out with knives, and the city Fire Department who had several lines of hose playing on it, as well as the chemicals, as mentioned above.
Every one felt sure that they would soon have it out and the show would go on and they were reluctant to leave. But as soon as it became evident that the blaze was getting out of control, the crowd scattered through the connection, the back door, and under the side wall in all directions, and the entire top was empty in a remarkably short time, and without any accidents Personally I didn't hear of anyone who complained of getting even their toes stepped on.
The real trouble was that the crowd mobbed the ticket wagons and demanded a refund. Obviously this could not be done, and to relieve the pressure on the ticket men, teams were harnessed and the ticket wagons were moved into the back-yard.
Next, Mr. Otto Ringling and the Superintendent of canvas, "Happy Jack" Snellin, accompanied by a book-keeper made a survey of the ruins. "Happy" would sing out so many feet of such and such lumber, of such and such dimensions and the book-keeper would make the notes. So much manilla rope of various sizes; so many gallons of paint of such colors, etc, etc., and when the round was made the accountant had an itemized report of every thing wanted for replacement, and the show's agents left for Buffalo, the following Monday stand. The fire took place on Saturday afternoon.
The men who had left for Buffalo were to make these purchases of new supplies and see that same were on the circus lot when the show arrived for Monday.
The Brooklyn Navy Yard in response to a telegram - sent two masts to Buffalo. These were lashed on top of an express car on a fast train. On the lot in Schenectady the show packed up and loaded much as though nothing was wrong.
The canvas wagons were taken to the storage car and last year's top loaded in them. The two wagons went on the train in their respective places.
While there was a large salvage of seats and grand stand, as well as poles, all were so badly scorched and blistered that every last piece had to be scraped, sanded and painted as well as large quantities of lumber used in making the repairs.
All equipment salvaged was loaded in its usual wagon and the wagon started for the train as soon as loaded, and as I remember it, we were loaded and out of town in good time - say between 12:30 to 1:30 a.m. Sunday Morning. The first wagons hit the lot in Buffalo at high noon Sunday.
The lot was already laid out and piles of lumber and bales and bales of rope and cordage, casks and barrels of paint and oil, and every item placed in the exact spot where it was to be used. As the show came on the lot, each wagon was spotted in its place and the real work began.
For example - a plank wagon is spotted on the back end. Before the team is unhooked seat men are on top of the load throwing off the seats. The instant one hits the ground, it is caught up and scraped, flipped over to the next gang who sand it, passed along to the painters who sling a coat of paint over it, and the last crew carry it out and set it up to dry.
This same routine went on with every wagon load, and equipment needing repairs was given to the mechanics for their attention before painting. Aside from the two masts from the Navy Yard all material was purchased in Buffalo. The show had a large number of poles lashed on top of the stock cars and these together with what was obtained on the Buffalo water front - refitted the top with poles.
Out in the center, the pole-riggers were making up the "block and falls" and the "main guys" for the center-poles, and canvasmen were working on the top. The light plant threw up an overhead system of flood lights that made the lot as light as a modern ball park and the work went on all night.
At midnight the cookhouse served a full Sunday dinner and the work went on until the morning. After breakfast in the horse-tents, the menagerie and dressing rooms were the usual hustle and bustle getting ready for parade, which left the lot promptly at 10 a.m., for all the world as though nothing had ever happened, and on its return at noon, there was the last year's top up in the air already for "Doors Open" and the fire at Schenectady was a thing of the past.
Of course you must understand it was a terrible contrast with the new canvas which had been so white and flowing, and walking from the menagerie into the old top, so brown and grimy, was like - as a canvasman put it, entering a railroad tunnel.
However, the public were in possession of the facts and took all in good part, and realized that a wonderful job had been done in a short time, replacing burned parts, and setting up the last year's top.
Comparing old and new canvas it may be well to note that a Big Show comes out every season with a new canvas complete and the last season's top is carried in a storage car for emergencies. Another thing that may be noted is the waterproofing of a big top. The top is spread out on the ground, and sprinkled with paraffin melted in gasoline. The gas drives the paraffin into the fabric and quickly evaporates leaving the paraffin absorbed into the canvas. For a thorough job, the ground must be warm and dry and the day warm and sunny.
The Barnum Top in that year (1910) was paraffined under adverse conditions, cold and damp resulting in a very poor job, and this was thought to have contributed to the spread of the fire after it was started, and supported the belief that someone fully understanding the situation, had started it.
I hope that this description will prove of interest to our members and readers in general, and feel that a few words should be said in praise of the men of the Big Top of that season. Many of them have passed into the Arena of the Life Beyond.
It was their loyalty to the show, their devotion to duty, their untiring energy and determination to drive the job through to its logical conclusion, in spite of all obstacles and draw-backs that made this event possible.
I well remember sitting in the cook-house at supper in Schenectady after the fire, and asking one of Happy Jack's men, a veteran of the tops, how many stands we were likely to lose and he smiled knowingly and said we were not likely to lose any. I asked if it were possible to run two hundred and fifty miles to Buffalo and repair the damage, and open the doors at one o'clock Monday - and he said they thought it could be done.
Well, that is exactly what was done!
An Interesting note from F. M. Farrell, CHS, in reference to, mention in August issue of the Bandwagon of Andrew Downie: “John Van Matre's notes were quite interesting, and quite accurate. He mentions Downie and Gallaghers wagon show, that I don't know of; but I remember Downie and Gallagher's Boat Show, but he didn't mention that. Perhaps many of the members do not know of the circus travelling on the inland waterways in New York State in 1892. It was the year I mention that I first heard of the Downie and Gallagher circus, They travelled on boats from place to place. The wagons were loaded on a big barge, the same as they loaded wagons on the circus-trains. There was another boat, housing the troupe, where they slept and ate. The two boats were built specially for the purpose. The show exhibited in Ithaca, N.Y., June 30th and July 1st 1892 and although a young lad, I remember the parade and performance. Another of Downie's adventures was his McPhee's Uncle Tom Cabin Company. Fletcher Smith used to tell me how he trouped with this Tom Show through Canada in the late '90's. He told how in some towns there wasn't even a hall, so they put the show on in a railroad round house." Bandwagon, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Oct), 1944, p. 3.
First season 1892 - Wagon show. Distance travelled 1,124 miles. Number of people employed was 175, and length of season 23 weeks. Number of towns visited 119, number of states traversed 4. The stables consisted of the following: 14 Advance stock., 18 Passenger stock horses, 136 baggage horses, 16 ring horses and 10 ponies. One large bull, and 2 camels, with the sender of this article in charge. Wagons were as follows: 12 cages, 20 baggage wagons. Ticket wagon, 2 Bandwagons, seven passenger wagons. Four advance wagons.
Show made one six-day stand and four 3-day stands, Showed day and date with three different shows, e.g. Gollmar Bros. Circus; Holland Circus and Sells & Renfrow Circus.
Size of big top 120 by 220 ft. Menagerie top 70 x 100 ft. Size of side show top 40 x 70 ft. and dressing room top 40 x 70 ft.
Four horse tents with 5 center poles in each and 1 cook tent.
Admission charged 25 cents - 50 cts. to Big top. Concert 10 cents, reserved seats 10 cents. Side show 10 cents.
Twenty two displays in the big show program including 7 riding acts.
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Last modified November 2005.
without written permission of the author and the Circus Historical Society, Inc.
Last modified November 2005.