Facebook Page
The Circus Moves By Rail Summary by Carl Morrison

The Circus Moves By Rail

By Tom Parkinson and Charles Philip Fox

ISBH 911868-85-2

1978, 1993

Notes by Carl Morrison,



Thanks to Joe Colossa, Blue Unit Circus Trainmaster for the gift of this book in Anaheim, California, July 30, 2012.  (  More about Joe in my RBBB Circus Train report in 2012 at


First attempts of moving by rail

Circus experiments, 1830s - 1870s

By the 1830s, numerous circuses and menageries were playing up and down the Eastern Seaboard and venturing across the Alleghenies.  These were wagon shows drawn from town to town by teams of horses in a continual battle against the miserable roadways of the time.

The idea of a traveling show, specifically the playing of one-day stands was a development of American circuses.  European circuses constructed buildings; Americans built wagons.

Wagon trains transported rhinos and hippos and huge tents with forty-foot poles and 6,000 seats.  The show was often a huge affair, the town’s principal entertainment of the year.

Circuses tried every form of transportation, but it was with the railroads that they assembled the greatest system for success.

The few early shows used no flatcars—only stock cars for their horses and boxcars into which all other show property was loaded.  Nor is it at all certain that they used any passenger cars; the people could ride over in one of the numerous local passenger trains, and they lived in hotels, just as they did with wagon shows.  Locally rented drays could have been used to shuttle the show equipment between train and show grounds.

Spalding & Rogers Railroad Circus in 1856 ordered nine custom-built railroad cars.  They also had some type of containerized units which were moved on railroad cars and then rolled through the streets on very small wheels.  Ringling Bros. and Barnum 7 Bailey in 1977 studied these units for possible future use.

It was the Dan Castello circus that made the breakthrough first railroad trip to the West Coast, beginning in April 1868.  It moved by train, but could leave the trackage to reach more remote towns.

As the last spikes were driven at Promontory Point, the Castello Circus already was on its way West.  Its advance man rode the first through train after the completion of the tracks.  It had only eight cars, but carried an elephant by rail.


P. T. Barnum rented his name to many circuses, but had no more to do with the show than that.  Seth B. Howes was one and called his circus, P. T. Barnum’s Colossal Museum & Menagerie. 

William Cameron Coup grew up on overland wagon circuses, the mud shows, so he knew there had to be a better way.  He was the side show manager for the Yankee Robinson circus.  In 1869 Coup and Dan Castello got P. T. Barnum’s name and planned the circus excursion system:  P. T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome.  It opened in Brooklyn on April 10, 1871,   It consisted of ten carloads of trained animals and circus gear, shipping them from Delavan, Wisconsin, to New York.  It had 600 horses and featuring Admiral Dot, the El Dorado Elf; Colonel Goshen, the Palestine Giant; Fiji cannibals, and a giraffe. 

Coup’s Circus Excursion system worked with railroads and arranged at each town to run special trains from surrounding villages on circus day.  The railroad enjoyed the surge of extra passenger business on show days.  He began skipping small sports and exhibit only in profitable cities.  By April 18, 1772, Coup used Pennsylvania Railroad cars to convert the Barnum Circus to railroad operation.

Coup also created the system for pulling wagons up a ramp onto flatcars.  The system involved bridging from car to car with crossover plates and chocking wagons into place aboard the train.  Loading from the end of the train and along its length, whereas others had manhandled wagons over the sides of each car.  Brakes were mounted at the end sill of the flats and were in the way of wagons that rolled from car to car and had to be moved.

Coup rented sleepers for performers and musicians and coaches for circus working men.  The difficulties of wagon trouping were behind them.

Barnum voiced strong objection to the railroad idea and to the all-night efforts in making the costly system work.  Eventually, Barnum was to claim it was his own idea, but first he tried to prevent the change.

Because of the brake location and unwillingness of Pennsy to change the design, Coup got an Ohio builder to deliver custom-designed flat-cars.  Coup purchased several Palace horse cars[1].  By June 28, 1872, the crew found in Cleveland a new and brightly pained train with uniform platform cars for wagons, chariots, cages, and carriages; a Wagner sleeping car for the artists; plainer sleeping cars for the laborers; boxcars for the extra items; and Palace cars for the horses and other large animals.

Now the show could travel 100 miles a night and still have time to put up tents and seats, give a street parade, and present two, even three, performances per day.

The circus had gained mobility and the circus train drew great crowds at the depot to watch them load and unload.

Coup had created the railroad circus, proved its worth, and set it forth on a course that would require no change for a hundred years.

In 1873, Coup inaugurated two new features; one, the second ring for the performance; the other, a so-called “flying squadron” of twenty men who traveled one day ahead of the show to pound the text stakes.  Consequently, the show gained that extra time on circus days.

The competing Forepaugh Circus  resisted trains and called itself, “City Moving Overland.”  Other circuses did become railroad circuses.  Circuses were but one expression of the way railroads affected American life.  It was even more concentrated than the Tin Lizzie craze of the 1920s or the television rage of the 1950s.  Railroading circus men were among the first to take advantage of the new transportation to California, Washington, Oregon, and Arizona.

The first fully coordinated combine of railroad cars and circus wagons built for each other was waiting for the W. W. Cole Circus when it returned from Australia in 1881.  Wagons were dimensioned both for their own loads and for loading on the flats.  Lengths of seat planks determined the length of the wagon that would carry them.  Wagons were grouped so as to utilize the full length of each flatcar.  Use of cross-cages gave the show a maximum number of animals in a minimum of train space.  In all, the show was eminently well designed, and it gave an impression of immensity far beyond its twenty-five-car size.

The Cole train boasted of the newly perfected Westinghouse automatic air brakes plus Potter three-link drawbar couples.  The train included five sixty-foot flats, six fifty-foot flats, seven fifty-foot stock cars, one fifty-foot elephant car, three show sleepers, one private car with kitchen and staterooms, and two advertising cars.  Cole’s first move was from San Francisco to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In 1884, at Baraboo, Wisconsin, five young brothers named Ringling launched their circus with nine wagons and rented horses.  In 1890, they bought eleven surplus cars from Forepaugh Circus and continued their rapid climb toward the top of the circus heap by turning to railroad operation.

By 1894 the term “railroad show” was more than a transportation factor.  Now it was a status symbol and an expression of size.   Anything called a “railroad show” carried with it an implied assurance of quality and immenseness.  A small railroad show had it all over a big wagon operation, in the public’s eye.

In the 1890s Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey competed as the two biggest railroad shows.  When Bailey died, the Ringlings bought the Barnum & Bailey Circus but continued to operate it as a separate organization.

A high point came in 1911 when the roster of flatcar railroad circuses included thirty-two shows on “the high iron.”

In 1919, the Ringling family combined its two huge units into one circus as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows.  It was a ninety-five-car monster with forty-two flats, twenty-six stockcars,  twenty-four coaches, and three advertising cars.  In 1923 it reached 100 cars and stayed at 100 through 1928.

In that postwar period there was a great scurry to get into the circus business and all available equipment was snapped up.

In 1929, John Ringling bought six principal railroad circuses and a fleet of 235 circus railroad cars and all of the accompanying show equipment.

The Depression took a great tole of circuses and by 1939 only two remained.  Many converted from “Fords to flats” in the late 1930s.  The great rush to get into the circus business after World War II saw some shows graduate from “highways to railways”.

The last pair of traditional railroad circuses continued into 1956.  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey had found the going increasingly tough for a few years, and it finally shuddered to a halt at Pittsburgh in mid-season.  It would rise again but in different form.

The next distinction was between tented circuses and those that played indoor arenas, without regard to how they traveled.

By 1957 the Clyde Beatty Circus was all differentials and steering wheels, which means that the last traditional tented railroad circus was the Clyde Beatty circus of 1956.


For show moves, the railroad rents the use of its trackage and supplies a train crew as well as locomotive and caboose. [no caboose today] The cars in the train belong to the circus.

There were about 6,000 cities, town, and villages of sufficient size to interest one circus or another in a given year.  Circus were regional in their travel schedule.  Some large circuses had routing pacts where they would swap territories each year.

Ringling had trouble distinguishing between its two shows to the public.  They were both the same size and it was of great value to use “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” on each.  They could not use “second unit” because that implied one is smaller.  So management tagged one the Blue unit and the other the Red unit.
Railroad Operations informational sheet for handling the RBBB Red Unit 1977 (page 71):

The Red Unit Trainmaster is Charles “Smitty” Smith.  He can be found in coach #40.

The Red Unit Train consists of a total of 36 cars.  Twenty-eight cars each 85’6” long and eight piggy-back flat cars each 95’6” long.  One of the flat cars is a bi-level.  Distance from top of rail to car bed is 54” on the 85’ cars and 42” on the flat cars.  Weight averages 100 tons per car.  All cars are within the dimensions of National clearance.  All cars are company owned equipment.


5      Stocks (Side Loading Animal Cars)            427 feet
21    Coaches                                                    1,795 feet
8      Flats (1-bi-level included)                            765 feet
2     Tunnels (End Loading Baggage Cars)    [2]   171 feet
        Total Storage Space Required                    3,158 feet

To properly handle the Red unit, consider the train in three sections:


The 21coaches are car numbers #40 through #60.  Our own generators provide electrical power.  Cuts can be made in several places provided that a generator car remains with each section.  Generator cars are #46 and #54.  Cars #45 and #46 can never be separated.  Please consult with Trainmaster or Electrician before making any cuts.  All coaches are equipped with septic holding tanks.  There must be an access road alongside the storage tracks for sanitation service and fuel oil delivery.  The coaches must be stored within easy access to water supply.  We carry 650 ft. of garden type hose which attaches to 3/4” faucet or fire hydrant with reducer.


The five stock cars are #30 and #34.  The stocks may be spotted on straight or slightly curved ground level track (no built up ballast) and may be unloaded from either side by our own 8 foot ramps.  There must be an adequate clearing adjacent to the track so that the animals can descend and assemble safely.  After unloading, the stock cars must be stored with coaches from which they draw power and water.  Note:  Car #34 does not contain animals and may be spotted with coaches during unloading operation if space is not adequate.


The ten equipment cars are #20 through #29:  eight piggy back flat cars (1 bi-level included) and two tunnel cars.  These cars may be unloaded in several ways but must be from straight track.  We have three ramps sets of our own 36 ft. ramps.  We prefer to use three ramps whenever possible, but unloading can be accomplished from two.  Whenever possible we will prefer to use these unloading ramps even if the cars are not all in the same area.

Unloading can be accomplished by various means among them, side by side, split crossing, piggy back ramps, and opposite ends of the same track.  These unloading methods can be used in combination with the three sections.  The best combination will be determined by the advance coordinator and operation staff of the railroad.  We require a 50 foot minimum crossing.

After unloaded, cars can be removed to store elsewhere.  Equipment consists:  Flats: #20 (ramp flat), #21, #22, #23, #29 (ramp flat), #24, #28, #25 (bi-level car); Tunnels: #26 (ramp tunnel) and #27.

NOTE:  The direction in which the poles (tongues on the circus wagons) are facing upon arrival in your city is critical since the equipment can only be unloaded from the ramp cars and in only one direction.  This direction will be determined by you and the Advance Coordinator upon inspection of the unloading site.  The air brakes are set from direct release. 

Do not use over 90 pounds of train line pressure. 

Please consult with Trainmaster or Electrician before making any cuts.

We are looking forward to having you serve THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH!
Author note:  This was a 1977 informational sheet.  The current consist of the Blue unit is:   36 coaches, 19 flats, 2 container cars, and 4 animal cars.  That totals 61 cars in the Blue Unit Circus train.  (note the changes since 1977).

More Recent information about the RBBB Circus Trains

The following notes are from

The following comes from a summary written by Rhett Coates ( for the Circus Train group at Yahoo in May 2005:
Railroad equipment is purchased from many sources, including Amtrak. Heritage-type coaches are re-built from the frame up at the show's Palmetto, Florida Railroad Recycling Center (which also has an adjacent show-creation site for the Walt Disney On Ice tours), and thus the FRA / Amtrak inspections allow the passenger cars to be in use beyond the rebuild dates. The Palmetto Recycling Center is along the old SAL Railroad, just under a mile east of the SAL / ACL [CSX] diamond in downtown Palmetto, and north of the Manatee River from Bradenton, where the Tropicana Juice Trains originate.

Circus Flatcars, of the 90-ft. variety, are re-conditioned with chain-binder hookups for wagons, buses, jeeps and other highway vehicles, and the show also employs custom-built (prototype "kit-bashed") bi-levels for transfer cages and automobiles. Some flatcars were former GTW frame-flats formerly used by the automotive industry, and some were former TTX bi-levels, cut down so that they fit through the Penn Station [Amtrak] tunnel under New York City. Also, ten of the show's 90-foot flatcars were the very first prototype TOFC flats built by ACF in the late 1960s. Two "container cars" on each show train are for carrying concessions materials, and were also prototype "kit-bash" cars, using former TOFC and frame flats, with two 40-ft. container permanently mounted and with center-doors added.
"RBBX" reporting marks (with five-digit numbers) are the Circus Fleet's FRA permanent markings, and this began in late 1994/early 1995. "House Numbers" are also on the coaches [smaller numbers in yellow circle decals], and these allow train residents to find their "homes" each night when returning from the arenas in which the shows perform. Sometimes the coaches are split up into varying configurations, when certain spotting locations in the cities they play are arranged differently, so the House Numbers can come in real handy, especially for new employees!

For the 1960 season, Ringling Bros. returned to the use of trains to transport its show. The circus tried highway transportation for three years (1957, 1958, 1959) after it closed its tent show in July 1956, but "highway problems, flat tires and too many traffic lights" forced the circus to abandon its bus-and-truck convoys and return to using its famous circus train. A New York Times news item in late January 1960 stated that "The cars were being made to sparkle with new silver and red paint this week in Sarasota, Florida." The new show was to open in Montgomery, Alabama on February 5th, and would arrive in New York on March 31st. (New York Times, January 30, 1960) The last tent show was on July 16, 1956. (New York Times, April 24, 1967)

In late 1960, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that they would establish a permanent winter home in Venice, Florida. The 15-car circus train arrived in late December 1960, and performers and circus workers unloaded all of the animals and equipment for the first time. For the previous 33 years, the circus had returned at the end of each season to its winter home in Sarasota, Florida, 18 miles north of Venice. The circus moved its headquarters from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Sarasota in 1927. (New York Times, January 8, 1961) (The circus' rail car restoration center is located in Palmetto, Florida, 36 miles north of Venice.)
On March 28, 1968, Irvin Feld announced that a second company of the circus would begin in 1969:

A second company of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is being planned for early 1969, it was announced yesterday by Irvin Feld, president and chief executive officer of the 97-year old show, which he and his brother Israel and Roy M. Hofheinz bought last year for about $10-million.
The new show will be "as lavish, elaborate and exciting" as the present company, Mr. Feld said. He added that the introduction of the duplicate company had been prompted by "the more than 100 arenas in the United States now capable of housing the show that are constantly calling us for a circus engagement each season."
"Even though we currently run our season for 10 and a half months," he went on, "we can only manage to cover about half that number." The new show will have the same type of acts and production numbers in a three-ring arrangement. The present circus employs about 350 people and uses a 25-car train to transport animals, personnel and equipment.

The circus is now said to be operating in the black, though only a decade ago the Ringlings were losing $1-million a year. In 1956, the tents were pulled up for the last time in Pittsburgh and the following year the circus became an indoor show. The elimination of canvas, portable grandstands and galley cars proved dramatically economical. (New York Times, March 29, 1968)

The following comes from a summary provided by Rhett Coates to on June 11, 2002.

In 1969, the late Irvin Feld, then new owner of RBBB Combined Shows, sent out the show's first-ever two-year tour with the first American tour of the late animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams. The nucleus of that 1969 edition was Circus Williams, brought over from Germany in its entirety, personnel and all, which filled out much of that show. Gunther's legacy was, as most know, electrifying, showing a new kind of animal training which never used fear, but only "positive reinforcement" to get animals to do "tricks" (which they already did in the wild anyway), but on cue.

Meanwhile, other Circus acts which were ready for touring with RBBB waited another year, and emerged in 1970 in a second edition of RBBB, which Feld entitled "The Blue Unit," and the previous 1969 show was dubbed "The Red Unit." This continues to this day, allowing the company to play twice as many cities (up to 90) each year, and also to stay longer in each town (a week or two average). Feld was questioned by the surviving Ringling family as to his reasoning for doing this, saying "You can't do that! Which show will be better?" Feld's reply was pure Barnum. "Both shows will be better," he said. The reasoning being that each year the other edition would emerge with a better show that the previous tour, so indeed, both shows would be better. Feld's son Kenneth now owns and runs the two shows, based out of Vienna, Virginia, and also produces eight Disney On Ice shows, as well as Sigfreid & Roy's magic show in Las Vegas.

Feld purchased equipment from Rock Island and New York Central to supply housing for the newer Blue Unit, and the Red Unit continued on "Hospital Fleet" cars, acquired from the government in the 1940s, but they were getting old.

Red Unit (which began in 1969) takes all of the odd-numbered editions of The Greatest Show On Earth on a two-year tour, beginning every odd-numbered year. The Blue Unit (which began in 1970) takes all of the even-numbered edition of The Greatest Show On Earth on the same two-year tour, beginning every even-numbered year.

Union Pacific Railroad's separation from their own passenger service allowed Feld to purchase a major portion of that company's Armour yellow passenger cars in 1972, replacing the older "Hospital Cars" RBBB had used since the late 1940s. Six-axle baggage cars became transportation for the animals, and coaches were gutted out and rebuilt as "sleepers." As of 2002, RBBB's fleet includes at least 80 former UP cars, the rest filled out from purchases of Heritage Fleet equipment from Amtrak, Auto Train, CSX predecessors B&O, C&O, SAL, RF&P, and many more. Both units also contain cars from N&W and PRR.

The flat cars are 89-footers, many from GTW, SP, and a few from TTX, acquired with wreck damage, but rebuilt by RBBB to their own specs. RBBB also has the very first ten 89-foot TOFC flats ACF built in the late 1960s, numbers 1-5 and five more which had no numbers. These were the ACF prototype TOFC flats.
RBBB has made major strides in updating their fleet, now to the point officials at the FRA say the trains are two of the best-maintained in the railroad industry, and rates them each for 60 mph.

As of 2002, RBBB has 54 cars on the Red unit, 57 on the Blue Unit, and at least 50 more in a "recycling" process in their large railroad shop in Palmetto, Florida, just across the Manatee River from Bradenton.

There are over 300 people aboard, all the animals, and lots of cars, trucks, jeeps, buses, wagons, etc. Personnel include a hundred performers, as well as almost a hundred Teamsters (Local 688, St. Louis) which include animal handlers, wardrobe, backstage crew, vehicle maintenance, and railroad car maintenance. There are also electrical staff, which operate the special effects, lighting, and audio for the productions themselves, and a large contingent of concessions sales staff, which not only sell all the programs, toys and cotton candy, but also staff the trains' dining cars, which the show personnel on both units call the "Pie Car."

These two shows also have their own live bands which play music live during the shows. There are also school teachers and tutors for the many children on board, as well as people who hand out the twice-weekly mail, cut hair, paint, etc. There is an office staff to coordinate all these others, and a priest who goes back and forth between both units and other American Circuses during the year.

This is why they have those two mile-long trains, as it's necessary to carry all these people and all that equipment. The show has determined they would never be able to truck such massive productions. The entire shows are aboard their respective trains; rail service is much cheaper to use for such a massive enterprise, and it's also a lot cheaper to house 300+ people free in rail cars than to put them in hotels every night for 11 months.

Until 1992, the off-season headquarters for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train operations were in Venice, Florida, adjacent to the 55,000 square-foot Circus Arena where RBBB held the world premiere for each season's show. Deterioration of the rail spur from Sarasota to Venice forced the circus to move its winter quarters to the State Fairgrounds in Tampa, bringing to an end, 75 years of circus in Sarasota County. The facility in Venice was at the southern end of the CSX rail spur, 35 miles south of the RBBB rail car facility at Palmetto.

In January 2012, Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, announced that the company had purchased a 47-acre site in Palmetto-Ellenton area. Located at 2001 North US 301 in Ellenton, the site was formerly occupied by General Electric, and includes 100,000 square feet of office space and 450,000 square feet of manufacturing space in two buildings. The new site is to become the new global headquarters for all of Feld Entertainment, with plans to provide space for off-season storage of both the Red unit and Blue unit circus trains. The rail car maintenance facility at Palmetto will be moved to the new site. (Feld Entertainment press release dated January 30, 2012;

A Google Map of locations in Florida used by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus trains:,-82.466125&spn=0.94616,1.794891&t=m&z=9&dg=feature

A more modern set of Train Facts provided by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and presented by Carl Morrison of can be found online at


[1]   Circus Palace Cars
Many circuses, especially those in the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, featured animals in their performances. Since the primary method of transportation for circuses was by rail, stock cars were employed to carry the animals to the show locations.

The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, which still travels America by rail, uses special stock cars to haul its animals. When a Ringling Brothers train is made up, these cars are placed directly behind the train's locomotives, to give the animals a smoother ride. The cars that Ringling Brothers use to haul elephants are custom-built with extra amenities for the animals, including fresh water and food supply storage, heaters, roof-mounted fans and water misting systems for climate control, treated, non-slip flooring for safety and easy cleaning, floor drains that operate whether the train is moving or not, backup generators for when the cars are uncoupled from the locomotives, and specially designed ramps for easy and safe loading and unloading. Some of the cars also have built-in accommodation for animal handlers so they can ride with and tend to the animals.

[2]    Tunnel Cars  A feature that many remember about the Ringling Bros. circus train of the 1960s and 1970s, was the "tunnel" cars. These were former baggage cars with their interiors stripped and their ends removed, and were used to transport circus equipment, such as wagons and animal cages. 
Due to the limited space inside the tunnel cars, they were replaced by long flat cars, of the 90-ft. variety, similar to the cars used by railroads to move highway trailers and intermodal shipping containers.  Photo of a RBBB tunnel car (

LINKS:  Other Train Travelogues by Carl Morrison:

Visitors since 7/4/2015