Circus Trains - by Danielle Abram

Circus Trains



Come one and come all to see the circus! “Railroad shows” have been around since the 1800s and are synonymous with large circuses and carnivals. Some of the best known circuses of their time were Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. These large and highly animated shows relied on trains and railroads to help support their animals, workers, and all equipment. 


In the 1820s, there were approximately 30 animal circuses that traveled on the backroads nightly by a wagon; not as efficient as you would think. By 1872, traveling by train became the best move for large circuses and was the easiest, and fastest, way of transport. 


P.T. Barnum & Bailey was well known across the states. Because of their popularity, they decided to only play and perform large shows and travel by train. The trains were painted colorfully to attract attention. Over time, the cars were also switched from wooden construction to steel for greater comfort and safety. In addition to their bright colors and upgraded equipment, circus cars were generally longer than other freight cars because railroads charged by the amount of cars and by the mile. 


Typically, circus trains were over a mile long and tended to have roughly 60 cars. This is equivalent to about 120 trucks. The order of the trains typically went from having the stock cars for the exotic animals closest to the engine, flat cars for the heavy equipment, and then coaches in the rear for the crew. Each room was a different size depending on length of service and family status, and had different luxuries depending on rank in the show. 


On most of these trains, there were 250-300 performers and workers who traveled together 40 weeks of the year. Talk about being on the (rail)road! Even shows today use railroads for circus and entertainment transportation. 


Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses traveled in two different trains, one red and one blue, that followed an alternating two-year schedule. Even though they returned to the same locations, each show brought a different performance each year. 


It generally took workers 2-3 hours to unload the train for performances, and then as soon as the show finished, there was a meticulous operation for loading the wagons. It takes about 4-5 hours to load the train, and then the circus is on the way to the next location.


Because the circus was so loved and remembered, it made sense for people to want to bring it home. Circus modeling and Plasticville made creating a circus on a layout possible. Circus Craft and Wardie-Jay started producing kits in the 1940s just after the war. O gauge circus model kits were also available to Lionel enthusiasts.  


LGB offered their famous Stainz 0-4-0 in circus garb for years. HO circus model kits were created and are still made today.  A lot of larger layouts and displays would take creators months to finish, however the final result was worth it.


Train enthusiasts can still go to circus museums and see displays of what the circus looked like when they originally started, and they can also see advertisements and special items that were used originally by performers and workers. If you live in or near Sarasota, Florida, make sure to visit the Ringling Circus Museum.

Modelers can buy kits of their own and make displays to mirror the circus as well, which many have done. Some even go as far as putting elephant dung in their layout to make it more authentic. 


The circus was beloved by many and it is amazing how it can be replicated today to encase the history and novelty of the show. A lot of hard work went into traveling, producing, and setting up the shows, so make sure you are ready to put in the work when setting up your layout! 

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