Unfortunate Railroad History Preserved in a Cemetery Plot: Showmen's Rest in Forest Park, IL

On June 22, 1918, a tragic train crash occurred near Hammond, IN. 86 people lost their lives with another 127 being injured in the crash, which was caused by an engineer asleep at the controls. Known as the "Hammond Circus Train Wreck", most of the casualties were workers and performers for the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.

Photo: Northwest Indiana Times
Early that morning, one of three Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus trains had stopped to oil up a wheel bearing, with the rear car jettisoning out onto the mainline, when a troop train was coming up behind it at full speed. Immediately upon impact, the four rear cars of the circus train caught fire, trapping anyone inside. Unfortunately, nearby marshes were the only source of water to fight the blazes.

Sadly, they were nearly to Hammond, which was the next stop on their tour. The two other trains had made the journey safely.

Image: The aftermath of the wreck, attracting numerous people to see the wreckage. (Wikipedia Commons)
According to the Northwest Indiana Times, triage was done at the now-demolished Michigan Central station in Hammond. While many workers were beyond help, others were treated for burns and released. One circus worker even was back at work the next day, only suffering a shoulder injury. 

"The Show Must Go On"

The Hagenback-Wallace Circus would only miss two shows as a result of the crash, as competing circuses lent them workers until others could be hired.

Five years before the crash,  in 1913, the Showmen's League of America had purchased a cemetery plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, IL specifically for circus performers. It would be this plot of land which would be used to bury many of the workers in the crash.

Many of the deceased workers were unable to be identified as it was common for circus workers to be employed days, or even hours, before the next performance. Working conditions and quality of life were nothing like we're used to today, as most had to share cramped quarters with one another. 

Nonetheless, the workers were buried with a dignified funeral five days after the wreck.

Image: The Funeral at Showmen's Rest, 1918. Chicago Tribune

According to the Chicago Tribune, the "engineer admitted he was asleep at the throttle and missed two red signals and a flagman waving a lantern behind the circus train in Ivanhoe, Ind.

He was acquitted of manslaughter after he testified he had not slept in 24 hours and he was taking kidney pills that made him drowsy."

If one could find anything good to come of this crash, it is probably that this was one of several accidents that caused federal regulators to mandate periodic rest for train crews, which undoubtedly prevented several other crashes of the same variety, and made the rail industry that much safer.

The plot of land reserved for the performers is marked by four elephant stones inside Woodlawn Cemetery. 

One of the elephants which designates a corner of Showmen's Rest. You can see another elephant in the background.

I visited the cemetery in October of 2019, and was taken aback by the sheer number of unidentified graves that occupy the site. I photographed every grave, and made it into a short video for easier viewing.

Thanks as always for reading!


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