"Damn everything but the Circus. And here I am patiently squeezing four dimensional ideas into a two dimensional stage, when all of me that’s anyone or anything is at the top of the circus tent…"

            e.e. cummings


"I was fascinated by the intricate logistics of this operation. Every day fifteen hundred people and a thousand animals—many of them savage—from elephants and rhinoceroses, lion, and tigers down to trained fleas, together with the tremendous amount of equipment they required, which included no less than fifty tents besides the Big Top, were moved from town to town. This whole city of canvas was set up, two performances were given, and the whole business was packed up and moved to repeat the operation in the next town the next day. It required more careful advance planning and more efficient timing than the movement of an army corps. Indeed, when Barnum & Bailey was touring Europe in 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany ordered the imperial General staff to study the logistics of the circus and apply them to the movement of the German Army. Unfortunately they did it only too well.

Though I saw it done uncounted times, I never got over the wonder of the simple, basic setup and teardown of the circus. In those days the six-pole Big top seated over twelve thousand people, and you could put a few thousand more on the straw laid down around the arena. We did not like to have the tent this full, for it was uncomfortable and added to the ever hanging danger of fire. But in those little cities in the plains, where farm folks might drive for a hundred miles to see the show, it was almost impossible to tell them they were too late to get in. The expressions on the faces of their kids undid you.

We moved, as I have said, in four trains. The first section was the flying squadron, consisting of the layout department, side shows, menagerie, and cook house. The latter was a tent that could seat a thousand people and serve five thousand meals a day. Because the men had to be fed as soon as they arrived, it was the first thing to be put up.

"On the second section we carried the Big Top and it’s rigging and the working personnel of the train and canvas departments. The third section brought the grandstand and the light and wardrobe departments, with attendant personnel. Trucks and baggage stock were on the second section. Ring stock and elephants were part of the fourth section, along with the staff and performers.

The last car of the last section was either the Jomar or the Calendonia, according to whether Uncle John or Uncle Charlie was in command. But it mainly consisted of sleeping cars for the performers and management. I use the word ‘sleeping cars’ advisedly, for they were not Pullmans, but vehicles specially designed to crowd as many people as possible into double (and some triple) Decker berths, with some staterooms for stars and staffs.

The circus owned all it’s own cars—the only things the railroad supplied were the engine and the caboose. By having them built over length we were able to bring the number we needed down from one hundred to eighty. They were all specially tailored for particular uses. Roe example, the flats on which the giraffes rode were under slung to give more clearance for their long necks, which were bent down in their thickly padded wagons. Other cars had other special features.

To me the greatest wonder of all was raising the Big Top. Great crowds used to come to the lot to see us do it; and in some ways it was a more impressive show than the circus itself.

First the great center poles, as tall as the masts of a clipper ship and weighting about a ton each, were brought to the lot by the pole wagon, drawn by an eight-horse hitch, and rolled off in approximately the right position, with the short side poles outlining the perimeter of the tent. Meanwhile, the gilly wagon drove around dropping stakes for guy ropes, followed by gangs of men driving them in with heavy sledge hammers in cadenced strokes. Special stakes were driven to hold the main guys, which braced the center poles from outside. These took the greatest stress, for they supported not only the enormous weight of the tent but the rigging for the aerial acts as well. The main guys were steel cables, as were the safeties on the bail rings.

Now the wagons arrived with rolls of canvas as high as a man’s head, which were dropped off and spread on the ground. Men swarmed over them lacing the sections together. There was a half-round top at each end. They had a total diameter of 210 feet. In between were five center pieces each 60 feet wide.

In those days boss canvas man Happy Jack Snellen had close to a thousand men under him. As you looked across the lot they were swarming all over the place with much less apparent order than an army of ants and far more precision. When the canvas sections had been laced together and the iron-ringed holes tied to the bail rings on the center poles, you could begin to raise it a little. The elephants strained against their padded harnesses, the one-and-one-half inch manila ropes stretched taut from the blocks, and the center sections lifted slowly off the ground. It was a little like hoisting sail on a great old windjammer. For a fact, much of the circus was rigged like a ship and the words we used came down from the days of sail-‘guys’ and ‘falls’ and ‘bail rings.’

As the canvas slowly lifted, men got under it to set the big quarter poles. It took about eight men to a pole, for each was thirty-seven and one half feet long with a steel horn at the end which had to be maneuvered into the leather-and-steel-bound eyelets in the canvas so that they were partly supported by it. Whit the elephants pulling the peaks up slowly, the poles slid along the ground until they were in position. These were all related operations, with the tremendous weight of canvas carefully figured out so that center poles, quarter poles, and side poles would never take too much stress and would not snap in two. Finally the peaks reached the top of the poles, all taut and smooth like a well-cut sail, with the flags and pennants flying over them."

           From The Circus Kings
         By John Ringling North


Book: "The Circus Fire" by Stewart O Nan

Book: "Circus Life: Every night, All Around the World" by Gianlugi di Napoli

Book: "The Circus At the Edge of the Earth: Travels with the Great Wallenda Circus" by Charles Wilkins

Book: "Images From the World Between: The Circus in 20th Century American Art" by Donna Gustafson

Book: "Cirque Du Soleil: 20 Years Under the Sun" by Tony Babinski

© 2001




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