The Ringling Brothers Circus Has a Monument in North Dakota


News over the weekend is that the iconic Ringling Brothers Circus will, after 146 years, be shutting down.

I’ve never been a circus enthusiast, nor am I an animal rights activist, so I find myself ambivalent about the news. The idea of the travelling circus has always struck a fantastical tone with me, thanks mostly one Ray Bradbury, but the reality of the cheap, dirty, overpriced spectacle which showed up with regularity in my community left me unimpressed both as a kid and, later, as a parent.

I haven’t taken my kids to the circus in years. I must not be alone in that decision, or else Ringling Brothers wouldn’t be pulling up their stakes.

But there is an interesting historical connection between the Ringling Brothers and North Dakota in the form of a monument near Wahpeton.

In the Riverside Cemetary in Richland County is a grave marker in the shape of a broken circus tent pole. It marks the death of circus workers from a storm in 1897:

On 10 June 1897 the laborers of the Ringling Brothers Circus were erecting the main tent in Wahpeton, North Dakota, when the skies darkened. As the storm swept in, a bolt of lightning struck and shattered the main tent pole. Two workers, Charles Smith and Charles Walters, were killed by the falling pole. A third man, Charles Miller, would die a year later from injuries suffered that day. The newspaper reported that a dozen other men were knocked senseless by the lightning strike.

Smith, 22 years old, and Walters, 30, were far from home and family, but they would be remembered. Circus people stick together, after all, like family. Moreover, both men were members of the Knights of Pythias, a popular fraternal order. The knights arranged for a proper funeral, while circus workers collected $400 for a monument. The funeral and burial took place folowing the afternoon show (before a crowd of 7000) on the same day as the accident. Burial was in Riverside Cemetery, also known as the Bohemian Cemetery, a mile south of town.

The monument subsequently placed on the gravesite is a stone replica of the tent pole that shattered and killed the unfortunate workers.

Supposedly circus workers to this day come to the monument to pay their respects.

I have no idea how true that is, but I want to believe. I just learned about this monument last year. I’m a bit of a sucker for quirky history like this. Maybe you are too.

I have one picture of the monument above. You can see more here.