Unscheduled Stop: The town of Tyrone and the Wreck of the Walter L. Main Circus Train

By Paula Zitzler, with Susie O'Brien

2008, America's Stories, Tyrone Area Historical Society

160 pages

ISBN 978-0-9818217-0-2

$15 (plus postage)

On Memorial Day, 1893, Alfred Thomas took his hunting rifle, walked into the woods near his home in Central Pennsylvania, and shot a Bengal tiger.

What brought this tiger to the forest near Tyrone, Pennsylvania?

The wreck of the Walter L. Main circus train.

The people of Tyrone weren't expecting a visit from the circus that early summer day more than a century ago. The circus brought excitement to towns large and small across America, and by the late 19th century, the shows were usually delivered by the railroad. But on this day, a heavy train and a steep mountain proved to be too much for the brakes and crew of Locomotive No. 1500. On a sharp curve at the foot of the mountain, the train left the tracks, and the Walter L. Main Circus was reduced to a heap of splinters and twisted steel.

Five people, including a brakeman, were killed, but more than 125 performers and others on the train escaped serious injury. More than fifty horses died in the wreck. Dozens of animals, including a gorilla, tigers, lions, alligators, zebras, kangaroos, parrots and several large snakes escaped their crushed cages and headed into the fields and woods of Central Pennsylvania.

The people of Tyrone quickly accommodated their unexpected guests on their unscheduled stop. In just nine days, the circus was back on the road. The circus left town, but the escaped animals, and the story, stayed in Tyrone.

A true story.

Archaeologist Paula Zitzler and local historian Susie O'Brien built this story from newspaper reports of the time and stories that have been handed down through generations of the Friday family.

Table of Contents

  • A barn raising
  • Across the Alleghenies
  • The merry, merry month of May 1893
  • A Monster Show
  • Circus day in Houtzdale
  • I am coming
  • The worst sight I ever beheld
  • Four funerals and a wedding
  • The investigation
  • Get a cage ready
  • Strangers and friends
  • The show goes on
  • Life goes on
  • Legacy