“Where we headed this time?” Zech asked as we headed towards Altoona to do some exploring. As many times as I’d been in the Altoona region, I had done every little exploring, but this was about to change.
“I have a couple places I want to see. There’s a list on the seat.” I replied. He picked up the piece of paper and studied the long list of places.
“I think this is a little more than a couple,” he observed. “So where are we starting?”
We exited Interstate 99 and took Old Route 220 towards Tyrone. I drove a short distance to the collection of buildings known as Vail, before turning onto Van Scoyoc Road.
A short distance later we spotted the monument on our left in a small, grassy spot near a turn on the abandoned railroad bed. A ditch between Van Scoyoc Road and the monument prevented me from pulling safely off the road – thankfully there was very little traffic, so I pulled to the side of the road and turned the four-ways on. We got out of the vehicle and walked over to the monument to pay our respects to those who perished there.
The monument recalls the “The Great Circus Wreck of 1893” which occurred in the early morning hours of Memorial Day near McCann’s Crossing. It was here that the train carrying the Walter L. Main Circus jumped the tracks while descending the Allegheny Front.
Walter L. Main was born in Chatham, Ohio in 1862; his father, William, handled a team of horses that pulled the big top for a traveling wagon show. In 1885, Walter had convinced his mother to mortgage the family farm so he could start up his own circus, “The Walter L. Main Circus.” Walter’s ventures would prove profitable as his circus started touring that same year.
By 1893 Walter Main was operating one of the largest circuses of his career. The circus traveled by a train that consisted of seventeen seventy to seventy-five foot long cars. Aboard the train were 130 horses, including Snowflake, a white stallion valued at $35,000, two elephants, two tigers, three lions, two panthers, camels, anteaters, kangaroos, a gorilla called “Man Slayer the Ape,” and various snakes and exotic birds. Along with the animals, the circus also had two bands traveling with it.
The circus began the 1893 season on May 1 in East Liberty and traveled throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio that spring. It had made it as far east as Lock Haven before returning to Houtzdale on May 29. Although the attendance had been low all spring due to constant rain, both shows at Houtzdale were well attended and the circus was looking forward to visiting Lewistown the following morning.
In order for the train to get to Lewistown from Houtzdale, it had to descend the Allegheny Front on the Tyrone and Clearfield Railroad line, which roughly followed the present-day Route 350. The steep grade was a dangerous one and as the engineer prepared the train for the descent, he had the conductor wire the Tyrone train yard for an additional support engine. After some discussion, it was decided that one engine should be enough to safely bring the circus down the mountain. If the railroad superintendent had realized that the circus cars were nearly double the length of ordinary train cars, no doubt he would have sent a second engine to help with the descent and possibly prevented the tragedy that was about to happen.
With a single engine and hand brakes, the train began its descent down the Allegheny Front into the Bald Eagle Valley. The hand brakes were applied at various points on the train, yet by the time the train rounded the curve at Mount Pleasant, it was gaining speed and out of control. Sparks were flying as the train rounded the curve at Gardner and continued to rapidly descend the mountainside. At the speed it was traveling, the train should have derailed when it went around the turn at Gardner, but managed to remain on the tracks.
However, due to the speed it was traveling, the train was not able to navigate the turn at McCann’s Crossing. As it started into the turn, the train shifted and car after car slid off the track and down the thirty to forty foot embankment. Despite the train being destroyed, only five employees were killed in the wreck. Many of the workers survived due to the sleeper car being at the rear of the train. As the sleeper car derailed, it came to rest against a wrecked car which prevented it from sliding down the embankment.
The immediate aftermath was stunned silence. Circus workers and performers started staggering out of the ruins, unsure of what had just happened. Then the air began filling with the sounds of injured animals.
In the aftermath of the wreck, one of the Bengal Tigers attacked a zebra, leaving it with claw marks, before killing one of the “sacred cows” and disappearing into the woods. The tiger wandered off and attacked a cow being milked by Mrs. Alfred Thomas. Her husband, hearing her screams, came running and shot the tiger while it feasted upon the cow. The mounted tiger’s skull still exists at the Tyrone Sportman’s Club.
Neither elephant was seriously hurt and remained nearby eating grass. “Man Slayer the Ape” found a temporary home on a nearby stump, hissing and howling at anyone brave enough to approach. The gorilla was finally lassoed and tied to a tree both for its safety and the safety of those at the crash site. Fifty-three of the one hundred and thirty horses were killed in the wreck, including the valuable Snowflake.
The town of Tyrone responded to the tragedy. Local businesses offered food, shelter, and aid to the injured. By Thursday of the following week, a big top had been erected in Tyrone and the circus was performing again, giving performances for the community that had helped them in the aftermath of the wreck.
One of the strange claims and sightings after the wreck came from a couple of travelers on Warriors Ridge near Alexandria. As they were crossing the ridge between Alexandria and Huntingdon, the travelers spotted a kangaroo bounding away. Note: Most sources place this sighting near Alexandria, but some state it was near Warriors Mark, which is closer to the wreck site. Wherever the sighting may have happened, nobody else ever reported seeing this kangaroo again.
Another story that was told after the train disaster involved gigantic snakes. In the weeks after the wreck, residents claimed they saw large snakes along Warrior’s Ridge. Note: these stories may have been the origin of the Monster of Broad Top, a giant snake that has been reported in Huntingdon County.
Another story told in the aftermath of the wreck involves an encounter with a panther near Mount Carmel. Two days after the derailment Frank Buck, a local mail carrier, encountered a large panther while on his route. In the confrontation, Frank shot the creature, which ran off into the woods. Searches for the creature proved fruitless as it vanished into the mountains. Many believe this panther had escaped the circus, hopped a train that took it to Mount Carmel on a train that had departed Tyrone and arrived in Shamokin early Wednesday morning.
The initial cause of the accident was supposedly due to the elephants shifting in their car because the elephant car was the first to go over the bank. The engineer claimed he had felt the train shift wildly immediately before the elephant car derailed.
Another theory was the wreck was the result of an axle breaking on one of the cars. The broken axle caused the car to fall off the tracks dragging the rest of the cars in line off the rails with it.
It was officially determined the train was traveling too fast down the mountainside, causing the wreck. The speed prevented it from safely negotiating the turn at McCann’s Crossing. Those aboard the train debated the official cause of the wreck. Many claimed the train was never out of control. It was estimated the train was going between forty and forty-five miles an hour when it entered the turn at McCann’s Crossing. Idealistically it should have only been going at a speed of twenty to twenty-five miles an hour.
The Walter L. Main Circus would return to the region in 1895. During this visit, and all future visits, the circus band would take time to visit the graves of two of their own who had been buried in Grandview Cemetery in Tyrone. Walter sold his circus in 1904, but it would remain The Walter L. Main Circus until 1937. Walter would pass away in 1950 and was buried in Pittsburgh next to his wife.
The memorial for the Great Circus Wreck of 1893 was erected in 1975 at the site of the train wreck and more recently a memorial service is held at the spot of the disaster.
Zech and I finished paying our respects and left the area in silence, remembering those killed in the wreck.
Note: A visit to the graves of those killed in the wreck can be found here: Remembering the Victims of the Walter L. Main
The location of the circus train wreck and the monument is along Van Scoyoc Road near the community of Vail. I was amazed at the number of modern sources that place the wreck in different locations. I’ve found the wreck location listed as having occurred in Latrobe, at the Horseshoe Curve, “Near Pittsburgh,” and at the Bennington Curve. The Bennington Curve did have a train wreck happen there, which was the Red Arrow, that occurred February 18, 1947. Those stating the wreck of the Walter L. Main at the Horseshoe Curve, might be due to a similar sounding name. There is a McCann’s Curve on the western side of the Horseshoe Curve, while McCann’s Crossing is near Vail. The similar sounding name many have caused the confusion and why some have placed the wreck at the Horseshoe Curve.