Circus Wagon Loading 4-2-17: Ringling Brothers Red Unit circus train loading process

The shot I drove 3 hours to get: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey wagons being loaded onto the train, a process soon to be confined to the history books.

On Sunday, April 2nd 2017, I drove 3 hours from my home in Northern Virginia to one of the easternmost points of the state, Hampton, where the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus was finishing up a run of performances at the Hampton coliseum. My intention was to film the loading process of the circus wagons, which along with the rest of the circus, was something amazing about to be confined to the history books. The larger circuses began traveling by train as early as the 1860's, and for the past few decades, Ringling has been the last one to transport their massive shows by train. With the final curtain falling on the 146-year show in May of this year, I simply HAD to watch the "circus style" train loading process happen one more time. The Blue Unit of the circus was coming to my hometown, and I would have just followed them down the street to the flatcars, but all the wagons were to be trucked out of town because of the short distance to the next stand in Baltimore, rather than loading them back onto the train for a mere 40 mile journey. Hence, I drove to Hampton, to follow up on a tip from a former circus employee on where the flatcars are usually staged for loading up the wagons.

Upon arrival, I found the roustabouts already in the process of building the ramp. The six metal segments (3 per side) were being placed by bobcat loader and brute strength onto metal stanchions perched on the rails, leading from the first flatcar to the edge of the grade crossing. I began filming, and was almost immediately told off by one of the crew members who did not wish to be on camera. Not wanting to be troublesome, I turned the camera away from him, and eventually relocated across the street where I would be out of the way of the crews.

With the ramps in place, a nearby pickup truck was the first vehicle onto the flatcars, towing a generator trailer behind it. The roustabouts then began selecting wagons one or two at a time, towing them over to the grade crossing with a "Harlan," a small tractor typically used to tow baggage carts at airports. The Harlan would position the wagons in line with the ramp, then get out of the way so the bobcat loader could push the wagons from the rear and the crew could connect the new wagons to the last wagon in line on the ramp. Next, the bobcat would push at the back with the pickup truck pulling at the front of the cut of wagons until the last wagon in line was completely off the grade crossing. Once the cut reached about 8-10 wagons in length, the bobcat loader continued to push the cut all the way up the ramp, the pickup truck's tires squealing at the heavy load, and the entire procession moved slowly down the string of flatcars. Upon reaching the last empty flatcar, the pickup truck and wagons would be tied down, while the bobcat loader turned around and drove back down the remaining empty flatcars to the grade crossing. There, the process would repeat all over again with different wagons and different circus vehicles pulling at the front of the wagon cut, continuing into the wee hours of the morning until the flatcars were all loaded.

While this was going on, a locally contracted towing company was bringing the wagons two at a time from the venue. The venue was only a few miles away, but it was far enough through busy streets that towing the wagons with the Harlans wouldn't have been terribly safe or efficient. The tow trucks would stage the wagons on the side of the road, ready for the roustabouts to pick and choose what would go up the ramp next. The loading order is partially determined by what needs to be unloaded first/last at the next stop, and sometimes the flatcars will be switched by locomotive after loading, to ensure the right equipment is in the right order for the arrival at the next venue, which in this case was two states away!

I had wanted to stay and watch quite a lot of the loading process, but given that the head crew member wasn't keen about me with my cameras, I beat a hasty retreat while the first cut of wagons was headed down the string of flatcars (I didn't want to be present when the crew came back, lest they felt the need to give me a piece of their mind!). Satisfied with the images I acquired, I drove back to my hotel room in Ashland, looking forward to a full day of chasing the circus train through Southern Virginia the following day!

Pictures are provided below, along with a link to a short YouTube video of the loading process. As always, thanks for reading!