Sunday, May 14, 2017

Remembering the Walter L. Main

Lion at the top of the Walter L. Main Train Wreck Memorial
A couple years after I had first visited the memorial to the wreck of the Walter L Main Circus train disaster, I set out to visit the graves of the victims. Five of the six people who were killed in the wreck are buried in Central Pennsylvania: Robert M. Gates, Barney Multaney, William Lee, William Heverly, and James Strayer. The history of the train disaster can be found here: Walter L Main Train Wreck.

I had to wonder how many people outside the circus and Tyrone realized that the victims of the Walter L. Main Circus disaster were buried within a thirty minute drive of the wreck site. This was a fact that I never realized until I started looking into the final resting places of those victims.

Setting out early one foggy morning with Mike, we went in search of those killed in the wreck. The first one we sought was Robert M. Gates, who was the final victim of the train wreck. Robert was employed by the Tyrone repair shops and had been sent to McCann’s Crossing to help with the clean-up. The group was in the process of pulling the tender (the car that carries the train’s fuel) back up the hillside by using large, long ropes when the rope he was helping to pull broke. The rope struck Robert knocking him down. He stood up and immediately fell back down and died soon after from his injuries. The only visible injury on Robert was a cut on his head but the rope had struck him in the chest causing massive internal injuries.

Upon arriving at Graysville Cemetery, Mike and I spread out in search of Robert’s grave. “Are you even sure he’s buried here?” Mike asked as we walked the cemetery grounds searching the stones for Robert’s grave..

“No, I’m not,” I had to admit. Robert was the only victim that I did not have a site of burial. What I found in his obituary was a notice he was being buried from his parent's home near Pennsylvania Furnace. Though we did not find Robert’s grave, I found his parents in a partial list of Graysville Cemetery.

Graves of William and Katharine Gates
Graysville Cemetery
Their son Robert was killed during the clean-up of the wreck
 A walk through the cemetery that foggy morning, we discovered William and Katharine Gates, along with a handful of other Gates family members, but no Robert was buried among them. We left the Graysville Cemetery and made a stop at the nearby Pennsylvania Furnace Cemetery. The visit to Pennsylvania Furnace Cemetery proved to be an interesting walk, but again no Robert. More research is going to be needed to find his final resting place, but seeing he was a member of the Presbyterian Church, which stands at the base of the cemetery, I believe he may be buried on the grounds of Graysville Cemetery.

The next stop Mike and I made that day was at the Grandview Cemetery in Tyrone. I found that three of the people killed at the Walter L Main Circus train disaster were buried in Grandview Cemetery. I knew that Barney Multaney and William Lee were buried in Grandview Cemetery, but a quick glance through the cemetery records told me that William Heverly was also buried within the borders. Through some emails, I had a general location of Multaney and Lee's graves, but nothing other than a burial plot for Heverly.

Graves of Barney Multaney and William Lee
Grandview Cemetery, Tyrone
 Finding the graves of the first two took very little time, though I somehow missed them on the first pass. Entering the cemetery grounds, drive straight on the road through the cemetery. Their graves are on the right side of the road almost to the end of the road. The graves are a couple rows back and marked by a small green marker that stands over them.

I stood there in silence remembering the accident and all of those killed during the wreck. Though the circus stopped here for years after the wreck to pay tribute to their fallen family members, very few people visit their graves anymore.

Grave of William Lee, Grandview Cemetery
Grave of Barney Multaney, Grandview Cemetery
Note: His stone spells his last name as Multany
Reading the information on the sign, I discovered some conflicting information: William Lee may have been born in China, but was listed as being from Nebraska, while Barney Multaney was from New York. Note: Among the listed dead is a William Mutterly (of nearby East Freedom). He appears on the initial lists of those killed in the wreck, but then disappears from the listings. My personal thoughts are his name was confused with William Multaney, which is why he was on the list of the deceased.

After paying my respects to Multaney and Lee, I realized that the plot number I had in hand was seemingly meaningless. The overall size of Grandview Cemetery prevented me from walking it to find William Heverly's grave. Heverly was a brakeman on the train and when the train derailed he jumped clear; unfortunately he didn't jump far enough and was crushed beneath the wreck.

It took almost two years, but I managed to find the final resting place of William Heverly. I arrived that day to find the headstone that I am convinced is his. The stone has been toppled and while the name Heverly is clearly engraved on the base, I could not find a name on the rest of the stone which is standing next to the base. There is a Forrest Heverly listed as being buried in the same plot and I found Forrest’s tombstone, so I am convinced that the old stone is the marker for William’s grave. Note: In many lists, there appears a William Henterly, a brakeman from Tyrone. Henterly and Heverly are the same man.

Grave of William Heverly, Grandview Cemetery, Tyrone
The years have not been nice to his memorial
To find William’s grave, stand at the graves of Multaney and Lee and look uphill towards the woods. His grave is in almost a straight line behind their graves, to the left of the mausoleum at the top of the hill and behind the small wall that borders the top roadway.

The final gravesite Mike and I visited that day was the grave of James Strayer. The reason James was on the train that day is unclear. Papers at the time list him being on the train because he had recently been hired by the circus, along with his friend John Eddings. Other newspapers at the time claim the two boys were on board hoping to get work with the circus. A third newspaper article, and the one most believe to be accurate, claims that the two boys had merely hitched a ride to Lewistown to see the next performance of the circus and were planning on returning home after that show.

What is known is both boys were thrown clear of the wreck. John ended up with scratches on his face. James landed a couple feet away with internal injuries that claimed his life less than an hour later. John accompanied his friend’s body back to Houtzdale, were he was buried.

Mike and I arrived at the Saint Lawrence Cemetery in Houtzdale to pay our respects to James.

“Where are we going to start?” Mike asked.

“Those old stones over there,” I pointed to the rear, left hand side of the cemetery. Within minutes Mike announced he had found James’ resting place. After paying our respects to him, we made a quick stop at the memorial for the train wreck before ending our day of showing respect to those who died in the wreck.

Grave of James Strayer
Saint Lawrence Cemetery, Houtzdale
The only victim not buried in Central Pennsylvania is the circus treasurer Frank Train (also spelled Traine in many articles). Frank was trapped under the wreckage and begged for people to help him get out before he died. Newspapers reported it took close to two hours to remove the wreckage off  him and as the last piece of lumber was removed he passed. Frank’s death is even more tragic when it is learned that Frank was tired of being away from his family and had approached Walter Main about leaving. Walter talked Frank into staying with the circus until after Lewistown to which Frank agreed. Sadly Frank never made it to Lewistown. His body was returned to his family in Indiana for burial.

Newspapers of the time record a couple more deaths, but I have not been able to verify them. William Evans (of Williamsburg) and Louis Champaign (of Rochester, NY) have been placed on some lists of the dead. These two names show up in the lists of the victims for months after the wreck before disappearing. Some have suggested that these two men were injured and died some time after the wreck occurred.

The aftermath of the wreck of the Walter L. Main Circus forever connected this community, this region, with the circus now and forever. Though the victims of this tragedy have been forgotten by most, they lie forever in the gardens of stone in our own backyard.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Wreck of the Walter L. Main

Memorial for the Wreck of the
Walter L. Main Circus, Van Scoyoc Road, Bald Eagle
Early one morning I set out in search of a monument that I grew up hearing about. The monument is a memorial to the train wreck that happened between the small communities of Bald Eagle and Vail in Blair County. The disastrous train wreck occurred near McCann’s Crossing, located east of Tyrone, in the early morning hours of Memorial Day, 1893. The memorial for “The Great Circus Wreck of of 1893” stands along Van Scoyoc Road roughly a half mile from old Route 220.

Arriving at the monument, the first thing I noticed is there is very little parking at the spot. Though the memorial is in a small, grassy spot near the abandoned railroad bed, a ditch along Van Scoyoc Road prevents cars from pulling safely off the road. Thankfully, there is very little traffic along this road, so I pulled to the side of the road and turned the four-ways on, and hopped out of the vehicle to visit the memorial to pay my respects to those who perished there.

Walter L. Main was born in Chatham, Ohio in 1862; his father, William, handled the team of horses that pulled the big top for a traveling wagon show. Walter worked with and owned a portion of a number of circuses, but they had all failed. 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.” This year, with Walter in charge of his own circus, his ventures would prove profitable.

The year 1893 Walter Main had one of the largest circuses he had operated. The circus traveled by train from location to location and consisted of seventeen large cars; each one averaged between seventy and seventy-five feet in length. Among the creatures and features of the Walter L. Main Circus that year 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. The circus also two bands that traveled with it.

Walter L. Main Memorial
The old railroad bed is atop the hill in the background
The circus started 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 arriving in Houtzdale on May 29. Though 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.

To go from Houtzdale to Lewistown, the train would descend the Allegheny Front, on the Tyrone and Clearfield Railroad line that 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. It would also to save the circus some money. 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 possibly preventing 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.

Plaque telling the story of the wreck of
The Walter L. Main Circus
The train did not make it around the next sharp curve located at McCann’s Crossing as car after car slid off of the track and down the thirty-forty foot embankment. Many lives were saved because the sleeper car was placed at the end of the train cars. As it derailed, it came to rest against a wrecked car which prevented it from sliding down the embankment.

The immediate aftermath was silence. People started staggering out of the ruins, unsure of what had just happened. Then the air began filling with the sounds of the dying; not human, but animal. Despite the train being destroyed  only five circus employees were killed in the wreck and one local was killed the clean-up.

One tiger 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. Friday. A neighbor heard her screams 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. The gorilla found a temporary home on a nearby stump and hissed and howled at anyone brave enough to approach. It was finally roped and tied to a tree. More than fifty of the horses that made up the circus were killed, including Snowflake, who lasted most of the day before passing.

By noon, the town of Tyrone responded to the tragedy; businesses offered food, drink 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.

Lion at the top of the monument plaque
Of the strange claims and sightings after the wreck, one of the strangest came from a couple of travelers on Warriors Ridge near Alexandria. They claimed as they were crossing the ridge between Alexandria and Huntingdon, they 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 these kangaroos again.

Another story that was told after the train disaster involved gigantic snakes. Residents would claim that the saw large snakes along Warrior’s Ridge in the time after the train wreck. Many think these claims are the start of the Monster of Broad Top, a giant snake that has been reported in Huntingdon County.

The initial cause of the accident was supposedly due to the elephants shifting in their car (the elephant car was the first to go over the bank). The official cause was speed: the train was traveling too fast down the mountainside. The speed prevented it from safely negotiating the turn. Those aboard the train differed in opinion, claiming that the train was never out of control, but 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.

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 members who were buried in Grandview Cemetery in Tyrone. Walter Main sold his circus in 1904, but it would remain in name until 1937. Walter would pass away in 1950 and is buried in Pittsburgh next to his wife.

The Great Circus Wreck of 1893 memorial 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,

If you choose to visit the memorial, please be aware that it is on private ground, so please be respectful of this sacred piece of land when visiting.

Please note: The location of the circus train wreck and the monument is along Van Scoyoc Road near the community of Vail. I’ve found that the wreck location has been listed in various sources as Latrobe, at the Horseshoe Curve, “Near Pittsburgh,” and at the Bennington Curve. The Bennington Curve had a train wreck, which was the “Red Arrow.” The wreck of the Red Arrow occurred February 18, 1947. The misidentification of the Walter L. Main wreck 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 Bald Eagle.