By Phil James
Passing trains usually command attention. In much the same way, the sights and sounds of a circus invite one’s inner Toby Tyler to imagine the excitement of life in the big show. For a particular group of Shenandoah Valley boys, those lures proved irresistible in early fall of 1907.
Perhaps this story began in 1870. Sixteen-year-old Frank Robbins embarked on an adventure through the northeastern states, first as a candy concessioner with a passing circus. His next ten years were spent mastering various skills with different showmen, including legendary P.T. Barnum.
During more than a decade as a show manager, he experienced a season of playing Hudson River towns via a chartered steamer. In 1905, Robbins began a 10-year run as owner of his own traveling circus, transporting his 200 employees and an accompanying menagerie of animals, tents and props, in 18 fully-loaded rail cars.
His schedule in 1907 included multiple shows in the rail towns of Basic City (later consolidated into Waynesboro), Charlottesville and Staunton. The timing of these visits coincided, not coincidentally, with the late summer harvest season, a time when some rural folks had discretionary cash in their pockets and purses, and a willingness to part with some of it for entertainment.
Advance broadsides and word-of-mouth advertising touted the exotic wonders of tigers and camels, bareback equestrians, trapeze acts with strong men and beautiful ladies, and, of course, clowns.
Assembled on the circus grounds outside the big top were games of chance and sideshows with enticing tapestries and colorful barkers exhorting the passersby to part with yet another two bits. Robbins’ array included magicians and illusionists, a lightning sketch artist, comedians, and the Mysterious Hilda, a lady handcuff expert. A sword walker, snake hypnotist, oriental dancers, and W.H. Jacob’s Colored Band and Minstrel Show offered unique performances to those who were not already lined up for the mind reader and fortune teller.
Staunton-area boys Fitz Curry, Ollie Grove, Robert Hansel, Clarence Howdyshell and Fishburne Potter hatched a plan to travel over the mountain to see the lights of the big city of Charlottesville and enjoy some youthful exploits around the circus grounds before hopping the train back home to the Valley.
The circus train arrived in Charlottesville from Basic City in the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 29th. Occupying a siding on Garrett Street, the show’s containers and wagons were unloaded from the rail cars, then pulled by horses to an area near the C&O coal bins on the east end of downtown. With well-rehearsed precision, the multitude of tents and cages were set up, and then the traveling troupe settled into a rare day of necessary repairing and rest.
By 10 o’clock Monday morning, the entire crew had been fed, and the much-anticipated ceremonial parade through downtown began. A great crowd lined the route and cheered as the bandwagon led the pageantry. Gaily-dressed performers and bejeweled horses with riders paraded through the city streets with cages of wild animals, and clowns scampered about, teasing one another and entertaining the townsfolk.
Bringing up the parade’s rear was the steam piano, its merry calliope whistles heralding for miles around the opening of the sideshows and upcoming performances. The crowd filled the street behind the stylized pied piper as its tunes led them to the show grounds.
The afternoon and evening shows packed in 4,500 enthusiastic spectators. Those who lingered late to watch the dismantling and reloading were impressed with the speed and efficiency that the entire complex was dispatched back onto the waiting railcars.
Trackside on Garrett Street, the organized chaos carried out under dim light helped mask the movements of five youthful figures as they quietly climbed into the steam piano wagon. Hiding amidst the contraption’s plumbing, they enjoyed the residual warmth from the apparatus’s boiler. As the cars gave a jolt and the engine began its westward move, they anticipated being back home in Staunton before sun up.
The roughly 40-mile stretch between Charlottesville and Staunton can be a challenge for westbound freights. Ever since the Blue Ridge Railroad opened to over-mountain traffic in 1854, progressively more powerful locomotives were built to drag increasingly heavy trains up the curving rail incline on the eastern face of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Frank A. Robbins Circus train had been assigned an engine for its return trip to the Valley that may have been the predecessor of “the little engine that could.” As the mountain grade increased, the engine’s drive wheels began alternately to slip and grab, creating a jerky ride for both man and beast.
Passing first through Brooksville Tunnel and then Greenwood Tunnel, the train struggled onward and upward. Midway between Newtown and Afton Depot sat the seemingly insignificant Little Rock Tunnel. Its raw interior showed the jagged scars left by those who had drilled and blasted their way through the solid rock a half-century earlier.
Onboard, no one was aware that the incessant jostling and swaying had loosened some of the blocks securing the cages and wagons on the flatbed cars. Then, partway through the short tunnel, the laboring train jerked to a sudden stop. Lanterns appeared trackside on the dark mountain as the concerned engineer and his fireman were joined by equally puzzled circus managers. As they approached the tunnel, their concern worsened as sounds of howling animals mingled with human voices and moanings.
Holding high their lanterns and squinting into the inky blackness, a jumbled mass inside the tunnel slowly came into focus. Several of the heavy, stacked animal cages had loosened from their mounts, and the uppermost one had turned enough to protrude beyond the sides of the flatbed. When the cage hit the interior tunnel wall, it slammed rearward and fell onto and partially crushed the steam piano, knocking it from the train.
The graveness of the situation became apparent as two of the stowaways climbed from the wreckage, badly shaken but unhurt by the crash. Two others were found inside the heavily damaged steam piano as they were regaining consciousness.
A tiger inside the toppled cage was killed by the impact. The mangled cage landed on the fifth stowaway riding with the steam piano, 17-year-old Ollie Grove, crushing and killing him instantly. Other animals also were injured.
Following hours of herculean effort and aided, mercifully, by the light of a new day, the damaged equipment was finally loaded onto the train. Young Grove’s body was left at Afton Depot where a local coroner’s inquest was held. The injured animals were dropped off at Basic City for veterinary care, during which time a Rocky Mountain goat temporarily escaped from another damaged cage.
Finally arriving a half-day late in Staunton, and much the worse for wear, the circus quickly set up as best it could and, foregoing the customary parade and several of its animal acts, proved again the adage, “The show must go on!”
A few weeks later the circus returned to its off-season quarters in New Jersey, its members dismissed to ponder the highs and lows of that season’s tour. The Grove family mourned the unexpected loss of a son. And, perhaps, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a distant, exotic howl was heard, the spirit of a show tiger, loosed and free.
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