BLTC Press Titles

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The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois

The Revolt of the Netherlands

Friedrich Schiller

The Haunted Bookshop

Christopher Morely

Paradoxes of the Highest Science

Eliphas Levi

On the road with a circus

by William Carter Thompson


A quiet, unpretending village has already begun to assume an air of stir and animation. Festal circus day is at hand. Parents and children line the railroad approach and eagerly seize upon all points of vantage. Keen curiosity and joyful anticipation are depicted on every face. The railroad yards are empty of rolling stock, and switchmen and engines are ready to receive and admit the travelling pageant and pilot it to a place convenient to its needs. No preparatory arrangement that human foresight can conceive has been neglected.

The intuitive welcoming shouts of boys and girls, a blurred slender outline in the distance, the screeching of railway whistles and the hurried orders of officials. Then a pressure of brakes, a crunching of wheels and a rattle of coupling pins. The circus has arrived!

One of the first to alight is the circus mail-carrier, who hurries off to the post-office. Important mail may await his coming and there must be no delay in its delivery. This is the first of three trips to the government station he will make that day, and between these journeys, which are frequently long and tedious, he will perform a variety of other work allotted to him at the lot. He knows by name every employee of the show, and his prompt and accurate service is rewarded at the close of each season with a purse of contributed money which invariably approaches a thousand dollars. At his heels is the general manager whose multifarious duties require early rising. The circus detective follows behind, scrutinizing faces and figures, conferring with railroad officials and approaching by easy stages the local police station. There are two sleeping-cars carrying performers and business staff on the first section. A great brushing of clothes and final completion of toilet, performed generally on the car platforms, precede their departure from the railroad yards.

The first section is known as the "baggage train." It bears the paraphernalia necessary to the immediate wants of the encampment, as follows: stake and chain wagons, canvas wagons, side-pole and centre-pole wagons, side-show wagon, stable wagons, water-tank wagons, cook-tent and blacksmith wagons, chandelier wagon, about two hundred draft horses, all dressing-room necessities except the trunks, the two performers' and business staff's sleeping-cars and the cars of most of the workingmen and their horses.

In the second train are jack wagon, the tableaux wagons, the elephants and camels and their keepers, performing, ring and baggage horses, seat and stringer wagons, "property" wagons, and all the appliances for performers and their baggage. The third and other sections carry more sleeping-cars and all the cages.

Twenty-two horses are allotted to each stock car. There are animals of all kinds and colors and sizes, from the saucy ponies and fleet, slender chariot beasts to the big, white ring and the heavily harnessed draft horses. The circus carries close to half a thousand of these equines. They are so loaded that they must needs stand erect during the journey, for injury and perhaps death, experience has taught, is the inevitable result of one of the brutes disposing himself, by accident or design, in any other position. The packing of them so close together that the possibility of this disaster is precluded is a duty delegated to the "wedge horse" of each car. After every other animal has taken his accustomed place at night and when to the lay observer they are as tightly compressed as safety demands, the trained "wedge horse" scampers up the inclined plane and burrows his way between the two animals in the centre of the car. He shoves and pushes until he is accommodated, and not until then is the boss hostler satisfied that there will be no accident, Although it would appear that they are crowded to unnecessary extreme, the circus man understands that the compression in reality renders the railroad trip more comfortable, for the wrenches and jars incidental to the journey have far less deleterious effect upon them than would be the case if they were loosely loaded.

Each driver has his team of two, four, six, eight, or ten horses and he makes two trips to the exhibition ground. Each wagon has its number, and each day and night the same man and beasts have it in charge. The drivers seem to have an intuitive knowledge of topography. Often the lot is several miles distant from the place of arrival and unloading, but these men of the reins are never confused as to locality or direction. They make the most complicated journeys without hesitation or mistake, seldom resorting to interrogating the native residents. Roads curve and wind in a manner most bewildering, but they keep steadily toward the scene of exhibition. These rides through pretty suburban streets in the gray light of the morning are often very delightful and invigorating. Generally, sidewalks are lined and porches packed with people eager to get their first glance of the circus, though its beauty and grandeur are hid. Frequently the trains are shifted during the day, and night, with its blackness, finds the circus cars awaiting their loads in an entirely different section of the town. The drivers are informed of the change, but it is left to their keen perceptions to make the trip by the shortest route. This is no simple accomplishment, in the gloom of streets and with landmarks entirely unfamiliar, but it is performed without blunder or inaccuracy. The number of accidents to man and beast in these nocturnal wanderings is remarkably insignificant, due, in a great measure, to the skill of the reinsmen and their coolness in emergencies. Sometimes steep hills, rough roads, or sharp corners bring disaster, but not frequently. The wagons progress to their destination behind four-, six-, eight-, and ten-horse teams as smoothly, safely, and swiftly as the local doctor goes his rounds.

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