|The Red Unit passes through Waco, Texas, in 2008. Photo credit Bradley Linda.
I got my first glimpse of the Ringling Brother’s Circus Train about a decade ago, during a brief residency in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The sighting came before I began writing about railroads as a profession, long before I was even aware that there was a community of train-watchers who put great effort into having the kind of experience that I had at the Uintah Street overpass.
The length of the train was tucked away there, neatly woven in between the I-25 off-ramp and pylons supporting the surface of the highway. Freight trains were common here but rarely interesting enough to earn more than a second glance. This one, with the silver plating and bright lettering on the side, was immediately and obviously different from the usual strings of tankers and box cars. By my best guess, was looking at the middle of the train--the end of it might be as far away as Fillmore Avenue.
That brief encounter gave no information about where this train had come from, where it would go when it next departed, wasn’t apparent from that brief glimpse. It was more than obvious, though, that this train was something out of the ordinary. That was apparent even without having a developed understanding of what was typical to see on the rails.
For generations, the way that the two Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus troupes travel--by train--has prompted almost as much excitement as the entertainment conveyed inside.
For generations past, especially those before internet and television and movies became common, the sight of the circus train meant a break from everyday monotony, the most elaborate entertainment and the most visceral representation of the wonders of the world beyond their doorstep they were likely to see. For modern people, it meant the continuation of a 146-year-old tradition, a welcome chance to photograph something beyond the ordinary autoracks and coal hoppers.
Late Saturday night, Feld Entertainment, the circus’ parent company, announced that the circus would cease operations in May 2017. As with any announcement of this caliber, any major and measurable turn for the negative, the response to the news is equal parts morning and grappling for something to blame.
Animal rights activists present the most identifiable and most inflammatory target.The evidence to indicate that contemporary troupes have established patterns of mistreating their animals is circumstantial at best, but there is no debating that RBB&B and PETA and the ASPCA have been trading insults and lawsuits for over a decade. The legal battle must have finally taken its toll, they speculate, and brought the century-and-a-half institution to their knees. The outrage, the feeling that the groups’ role in closing of the circus amounted to something stolen away from them, was palpable. Wasn't it enough that RBB&B had agreed to phase performing elephants out of its shows?
Other, more tempered responses speculated on the prohibitive cost of keeping two trains--about 120 pieces of rolling stock-- in good repair and fully compliant with operable standards. Anyone who has ever lent a hand in tourist railroad operations or private car ownership can attest that maintaining even a small fleet can be prohibitively expensive. Feld Entertainment did cite a combination of operating costs and falling attendance as the reasons behind the closure, though it did not offer any information on what specific costs involved with operating the circus had become the most untenable.
Still others voiced what was perhaps the most accurate and the least well received opinion on the reasons behind the RBB&B’s closure: Travelling circuses are just one more relic of bygone eras that have overstayed their place in our modern, digital world. Their demise was inevitable: Modern audiences are too worldly, too cynical, inundated with too many other entertainment options to appreciate the kind of entertainment that the circus offers.
The truth, as it usually is, is likely some combination of all of these factors. Whatever the exact reasons, though, the end of the circus and its two trains bring an era of entertainment and era of railroading to a close. The loss is palpable. There are jobs lost, talents and years of experience that may not find a place in other industries, an entire experience that can now only be described in the pages of history.
There will be no more of the community and kinship fostered among the groups turned out at grade crossings and scenic curves to wait for the train. This May, their pictures will become archival, descriptive of history, divorced from anything currently rolling over the rails.
As they say, get it while you can.