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Circus Trains

By | April 7, 2017

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In January 2017, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus announced it was closing down after more than 100 years in operation. For many, the transportation of the “Greatest Show on Earth” – its performers, animals and equipment – has been just as fascinating as the show itself. Circus trains became an American icon, traveling thousands of miles each year to bring the circus to cities across the United States.

Watching the circus unload long lines of passenger cars, trying to catch the perfect photo of a passing circus train and studying the robust operations of the trains have become a past-time for many over the decades. As Eugene Witmore wrote in the 1945 issue of Trains magazine: “The lover of railroads and the lover of circuses have much in common, for without the railroad, the modern American circus could never exist.”

In this free download, Trains celebrates the history of the circus train, with a series of articles that detail:

  • How rail became the preferred mode of transportation for the circus
  • An emergency repair effort for the 1987 Great Circus Train, taken on by volunteer crews from the Mid-Continent Railway Museum
  • The circus’ bi-centennial celebrations, and the Great Circus Train’s role in it
  • What it takes to put the massive Ringling show on the rails, including a look at the circus’ Florida shop
  • A look inside the lives of Ringling Bros. entertainers who live and travel on the train


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21 thoughts on “Circus Trains

  1. Thanks for this wonderful gift of the history of circus trains, especially the last hundred years of RBBB Circus. I never got to see the train but have read and looked at a lot of pictures of it. I remember seeing the RBBB Circus at the State Fair in Milwaukee as a child but don’t remember seeing the train. You have done such a wonderful job of putting down on paper in words and pictures the many, many circuses that traveled on trains through the early years.
    You have done a fine job of saying good-bye to an American Icon for all of us.

    Thank you again Trains Magazine.

  2. WOW what a great gift. Wonderful articles. I grew up in Bridgeport CT and fondly remember the days of the Big Top, it is sad to think that we will see the end of a era. Bitter-sweet.

  3. Thank you for this article. Caught the last 2 circus train that ran in New England. Question will this gift be availilbe as a hard copy?

  4. It’s so very sad that when times change, some of life’s best and historical events come to an end. I remember going to BBRB circuses with my uncle and two sisters as a youth. I never fully appreciated the magnitude of daring, skill, and professionalism that it took to entertain at this level. I do now.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful look back at the history of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The most informative and complete collection I probably will ever see. I only went to about 3 performances of this wonderful entertainment value, and it was very disappointing to see how about a year after the elephants were “retired,” that this great American tradition finally surrendered in 2017. RBBB, America and I will miss you.

  6. Thanks for making this a free download. The benefits of being a subscriber seem to be endless. And the genius of your editor keeps your magazine an outstanding value for the price of a subscription.

  7. Very nice, As a Circus fan and model railroader, I’m very pleased that I tried this magazine for a year and then discovered this site. What a wonderful add-on to the value of this magazine!

  8. I hoping that sometime in the next year or two, a Circus Train Video will be released. Thanks for the pdq.

  9. Great story on the circus trains. So sad they are now gone, an era lost forever. Thanks for the download!

  10. I remember seeing the Ringling Bros. circus train arriving in Downtown Memphis but never went to any of their circuses which is one of my regrets. Thanks for sharing this!

  11. It never happened that I attended any circus, but this “book” is all that is needed to appreciate the toil needed to produce a show. Thank you for this.
    Bill Rognvaldson

  12. I never got to see it come to down or see the elephants parade down a main street. And now I never will. Frisco used to haul the Royal American Shows and I do remember seeing their cars around.

  13. I got to watch several pass through town over the years. only had three stop when I was I kid. bigger shows didn’t stop in my small town. I miss seeing them and watching operations

  14. I was privileged to see the circus train heading west through Rochelle on the webcam a few years ago, and was amazed by the length of the train. I am an English railfan and I can remember the circus trains that operated in Britain until the 1960’s, and especially the grand parade led by the elephants from the goods depot where they unloaded to the site of the circus.

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