- Historic Sites
The Colossus Of His Kind: Jumbo
Pried loose from a furious Great Britain to meet a tragic death in the New World, this huge elephant made a fortune for his owner, delighted millions, and added a new superlative to our language
August 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 5
The main-line track ran in an eastwest direction; the siding that held the circus train was to the south of it, separated by only a few feet of gravel roadbed. On the north side of the track was a steep six-foot drop, at the bottom of which was a right-of-way fence and beyond that a vacant field where the big tops would be set up. As the long train stopped on the siding some men uncoupled it near the middle, and the forward part was pulled up a few yards, to make the unloading (and later the loading) of the animals faster by eliminating the long walk around the end of the train. Everything seemed routine.
Halfway through the night show the elephants performed their usual “military drill,” after which, according to set routine, twenty-nine of them were to be taken back to the train and loaded for the trip to the next town. Fred R. Armes, the operator in charge of the Grand Trunk Railroad depot at St. Thomas that night, requested (or so it was later claimed) the circus men not to begin loading the elephants until 9:55 that night, long after a westbound express freight was due to pass through. Even then they were to wait for a yard crew and, as still another precaution, to use a designated crossing, far up the track by the station. But the impatient elephant handlers tore down a section of right-of-way fence directly between the huge tents and the circus train and proceeded early in the evening to march the elephants up the embankment, across the main-line track, and into their cars.
This left two of the show’s elephants unloaded: the smallest, a dwarf clown elephant named Tom Thumb, and the largest, the towering Jumbo. They had been used to close the act, and it was about eight fifteen when Scott led the elephants through the dismantled fence and up the embankment and walked eastward with them down the main track to the waiting cars.
At about the same time the Grand Trunk’s Special Freight #151 was nearing the St. Thomas rail yard, pulled by high-wheeled, diamondstacked locomotive #88. It was not scheduled to stop in St. Thomas, and as it neared the rail yard it entered a downgrade and gained speed. To engineer William Burnip everything was going routinely. But as he scanned the track ahead he saw—or thought he saw, in the pitifully weak light of the kerosene lamp above the cowcatcher—a hulking gray silhouette, a shade lighter than the surrounding night, looming over the rails.
As the train roared closer Burnip, thunderstruck, dimly perceived not one blur but two— elephants , plodding toward him! Reacting frantically, he lunged for the Johnson bar, throwing the engine mechanism into reverse, and blew three short blasts on the whistle for brakes. It was two years before the installation of the Westinghouse air brake, so all the braking had to be done manually by the brakeman, who turned the great handwheels at the end of each boxcar. Slowly, car by car, the wheels locked with a banshee screech, shooting glowing sparks high in the air, as did the high wheels of the locomotive, now churning backward as the engine reversed itself. But Burnip must have known the situation was hopeless. The feeble head-lamp had not reflected the dull gray hides of the elephants until it was too late, and moreover the train was still gaining speed on the downgrade. Seeing that collision was absolutely inevitable, Burnip and his fireman could do nothing but save themselves, and they leaped from the cab at the last instant.
For Scott and the two elephants it was a long walk back up the track to the Palace Car, and just as they were opposite the flagman Scott’s ears picked up the shriek of a train whistle—three short blasts that meant emergency brakes. At once he turned to the flagman: “What line is that train on?” he demanded.
The flagman stood stiff with horror: “My God, it’s on our track!” The dim kerosene lamp became visible, the rumble more audible, and the flagman, recovering, began to sprint toward it, waving his lantern desperately. Exactly what happened next is, to the present day, not definitely known, and several totally irreconcilable versions have been published.
Some forty years later a Barnum and Bailey circus clown with a fine sense of the dramatic said that Jumbo stood his ground, facing the oncoming freight, bellowing with rage. “I happen to know,” he wrote, “that Jumbo was a big, obstinate brute, and was killed by his refusal to get out of the way of a fast freight.” The depot master, Fred Armes, in another version of the story, had the irascible and stupid Jumbo charging the oncoming express freight, trumpeting in anger, trying to knock it off the tracks. But his account appeared when Barnum was suing the Grand Trunk line for a hundred thousand dollars, and the road’s officials had ample time to remind Armes that the fastest way to absolve the company of guilt in the accident would be to say that Jumbo had thundered into a vicious, unprovoked charge at the innocent freight train. P. T. Barnum’s own account was full of splendid exaggeration. But what actually happened, as far as can be determined, was unromantic.