Thursday, June 01, 2017

A circus, and its trains, rolls into history

Written by  Joseph M. Calisi
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Amtrak ACS-64 642, honoring America’s Veterans, leads the mile-long Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus Red Train thru Harold Interlocking at Sunnyside Yard in Queens before heading to the Circus’s final engagement at the Nassau Coliseum. Amtrak ACS-64 642, honoring America’s Veterans, leads the mile-long Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus Red Train thru Harold Interlocking at Sunnyside Yard in Queens before heading to the Circus’s final engagement at the Nassau Coliseum. Joseph M. Calisi (all photos)

On May 22, 2017, after 146 years, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus folded its tent for the last time after a final show at Long Island’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and passed into the history books. The next day, the circus’s famous 79-car Red Train operated for the last time; it had been for years one of two, the other being the Blue Train.

05102017 LIRRCircusX1a JMCalisiTuesday, May 23, 2017, the final run of the Red Train, with reporting marks RBBX, occurred. It was assembled in Garden City, Long Island, on the Long Island Rail Road Mitchell Field Secondary, between 2:00 and 4:30 pm. At about 9:00 pm, under cover of darkness, it moved on to Harold interlocking in Long Island City, Queens, for interchange with Amtrak.

Subsequently, RBBX was shepherded from Harold, under the East River, through Penn Station New York, then through the Hudson River tunnels, past Secaucus Junction, and onward to its final destination as a complete Red Train at Conrail’s Oak Island Yard. There, it was broken up, as many of its 59 passenger cars had previously been auctioned off to new owners, which have 30 days to remove the Ringling Bros. symbols and re-stencil them.

The rest of the train, consisting mostly of flat cars, departed Oak Island in the pre-dawn hours of May 24, and headed south via CSX to set-off points at Rocky Mount, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. Any remaining flat cars returned to Ringling Bros. rail headquarters in Florida and were unloaded. Some of the cars were successfully auctioned off. Those not scooped up by new owners will be scrapped.

The economics of operating a massive road show and the discontinuance of performing Asian elephants are what many believe led to the demise of Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, which for generations called itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.” In 2001, a group led by the Humane Society of the United States sued the Circus over alleged mistreatment of elephants. The suit was dismissed in 2014. But in March 2015, the Circus announced that all elephants would be retired in 2018; the retirement date was subsequently moved up to May 1, 2016.

On Jan. 14, 2017, the Circus announced it would close in late May, and would lay off more than 462 employees. Declining attendance combined with high operating costs and loss of the elephants were cited as reasons for closure. The final performance on May 21 came at the end of the “Out of This World” tour.

The performers packed their gear and went their separate ways. The “astronaut sky walk” performers returned to Hungary; the Chinese ice acrobats went back to China; others met the same fate. With great sadness, an era in American family entertainment has ended.

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