Hammond Circus Train Wreck
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|Date||June 22, 1918|
|Location||Ivanhoe, Gary, Indiana|
|Operator||Michigan Central Railroad|
|Type of incident||Collision|
|Cause||Engineer falling asleep|
The Hammond Circus Train Wreck occurred on June 22, 1918, and was one of the worst train wrecks in US history. Eighty-six people were reported to have died and another 127 were injured when a locomotive engineer fell asleep and ran his train into the rear of another near Hammond, Indiana.
Circus train wreck
In the early morning hours of June 22, 1918, Alonzo Sargent was operating a Michigan Central Railroad troop train pulling 20 empty Pullman cars. He was aware that his train was closely following a slower circus train. Sargent, an experienced man at the throttle, had slept little if at all in the preceding 24 hours. The effects of a lack of sleep, several heavy meals, some kidney pills, and the gentle rolling of his locomotive are thought to have caused him to fall asleep at the controls.
At approximately 4 a.m., he missed at least two automatic signals and warnings posted by a brakeman of the 26-car circus train, which had made an emergency stop to check a hot box on one of the flatcars. The second train plowed into the caboose and four rear wooden sleeping cars of the circus train at a rail crossing known as Ivanhoe Interlocking (5 1⁄2 miles (8.9 km) east of Hammond, Indiana) at an estimated speed of 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).
The circus train held 400 performers and roustabouts of the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus. Most of the 86 who were killed in the train wreck perished in the first 35 seconds after the collision. Then, the wreckage caught on fire. Among the dead were Arthur Dierckx and Max Nietzborn of the Great Dierckx Brothers, a strongman act, and Jennie Ward Todd of The Flying Wards. There were also 127 injuries.
Five days later, most of those killed, burned beyond recognition, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, at the intersection of Cermak Road and Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park, Illinois, in a section set aside as Showmen's Rest, which had been purchased by the Showmen's League of America only a few months earlier. Few of those buried were formally identified, and so the graves of most of the casualties are marked "Unknown Male" or "Unknown Female." One grave is marked "Smiley", one "Baldy", and another "4 Horse Driver". The section is surrounded by statues of elephants in a symbolic mourning posture.
The wreck is described in great detail in the report of the joint Interstate Commerce Commission and Indiana Public Service Commission following an investigation.
Sargent, who was under arrest, refused to testify at any of the hearings on advice of his counsel. In his report of the accident to the officials of the railroad company, he made the following statement:
"I was called shortly after 8 p.m. June 21, for deadhead equipment west, engine 8485, for 10.15 p.m., and left Kalamazoo, Michigan at 10.35 p.m. Had been up since 5 a.m., June 21, dead heading from my home in Jackson on Train No. 41, and had had little or no sleep during the day. Had had a couple of heavy meals before going out, realizing that I would not get anything more to eat until some time the next morning. Leaving Kalamazoo, followed freight train to Michigan City yard and stopped at signal near Center Street. Got proceed signal from some one on ground, pulled up to Michigan City, stopped at standpipe and took water. While following this freight train, we stopped first between Dowagiac and Pokagon on account signal at danger. Stopped again at Pokagon and Niles for same reason, this freight train being ahead.
"Leaving Michigan City, had clear track to East Gary and there caught block of train ahead, reduced speed, but did not have to stop, as block cleared before I reached it. Reduced speed going though Gary to comply with rules, and saw no more signals at caution or danger until approaching curve east of Ivanhoe, where I found second signal east of wreck at caution. Was going about 25 miles per hour at this point, but did not reduce speed, as I expected that the next signal would probably clear before I got to it, or that I would see it, if at danger, in time to stop. The wind was blowing very hard into cab on my side and I closed the window, which made the inside of cab more comfortable. Before reaching the next signal I dozed on account of heat in cab and missed it. Not realizing what had happened to me until within 75 to 90 feet, I awoke suddenly and saw the tail or marker lights showing red on a train directly ahead of me. Not realizing that the rear end of this train was so close. I started to make a service application, but before completing it placed brake-valve handle into emergency position. We struck almost instantly after making the brake application. Don't know whether I closed the throttle or not, but think I did. Looked to see where the fireman was and saw he was running toward the gangway. Did not see a fusee, hear a torpedo, or see any other warning signal up to the time I saw the red tail lights. Wreck happened at about 4.05 a.m., June 22, and I stayed there for an hour or more assisting in getting people out of the wreckage. I have been in the service of the Michigan Central Railroad Co. for approximately 28 or 29 years, the last 16 of which I have been continuously employed as an engineer. I am in perfect physical condition, as well as mental condition, and have had no illness within 25 or 30 years requiring the service of a doctor. There was nothing defective about the air brakes or other mechanism of the engine or train that I was operating, nor was there any defective condition of any of the signals or track upon which I was operating to the best of my knowledge. The accident was due solely to the fact that I accidentally fell asleep, and I had no intent to injure any person, nor was same done with malice, but solely through an accident, as aforesaid."
The ICC report concluded, "This accident was caused by Engine-man Sargent being asleep, and from this cause, failing to observe the stop indication of automatic signal 2581, and the warnings of the flagman of the circus train, and to be governed by them."
The report was also critical of the older wooden cars, whose oil lamps may have ignited the fire immediately after the collision.
Although Sargent and his fireman, Gustave Klauss, were criminally charged in Lake County, Indiana, following a trial the jury found itself deadlocked, and a mistrial was declared. Prosecutors declined to re-try the case, and charges were dismissed on June 9, 1920.
- "Ivanhoe". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey.
- Richard M. Lytle (2011). The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918: Tragedy on the Indiana Lakeshore. The History Press.
- Holbrook, Stewart H. (1947) The Story of American Railroads, published in New York City.
- Lytle, Richard M. (2010) "The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918", published by The History House, Charleston, NC.
- Reeder, Warren A. (1972) "No Performances Today; June 22, 1918"
- Shaw, Robert B. (1978) "A History of Railroad Accidents, Safety Precautions and Operating Practices" pgs. 244–245
- Interstate Commerce Commission investigation report
- Hammond, Indiana history
- Danger Ahead! Railroad Disasters