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.

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