Showmen's Rest Monument.

Memorial to Circus Train Wreck Dead

Field review by the editors.

Forest Park, Illinois

Five elephant statues mark the boundaries of Showmen's Rest, a plot of 750 grave sites at Woodlawn Cemetery. The rumor, perpetuated by generations of Illinois schoolchildren, is that elephants killed in a train wreck couldn't be moved and were buried where they fell. The statues actually mark the site of a mass grave of 56 (or perhaps 61) Hagenbeck-Wallace circus employees who were killed on June 22, 1918, when an empty troop train piloted by a napping engineer plowed into the four rear sleeping cars of the circus train near Hammond, Indiana.

Grave markers of the unknown dead.

Forest Park is a town of cemeteries, marking the historical fringe of the metropolitan area. Public transportation terminated here, so why not Chicago's deceased populace? While strip malls and fast food have crept in, endless fields of monuments still silently greet the Forest Park visitor.

On the fateful early morning of June 22, 1918, a 26-car circus train was heading from Illinois into Hammond, Indiana, with 400 performers and roustabouts asleep in the rear cars. The train was halted on the Michigan Central tracks near Ivanhoe due to an overheated axle box. A troop train suddenly appeared on the same track, cruising up from behind at 35mph and failing to heed track warning signals and flares. Engineer Alonzo Sargent snoozed his way through three cars, finally halting on top of the fourth in a deafening grinding of metal and splintering of wood. Most of the 86 perished in the first 35 seconds of the wreck. Then, as is typical of any horrific historical mishap, the whole thing caught on fire.

Four days after the crash, survivors gathered at Woodlawn Cemetery, where the Showmen's League of America had selected a burial plot for members. The identity of many victims of the wreck was unknown -- some were roustabouts and temporary workers hired just hours or days before. Most of the markers note "unidentified male" or female. One is marked "Smiley," another "Baldy," and "4 Horse Driver." Showmen's Rest continues to fill up today, with deceased showmen performing at that biggest of Big Tops.

Also see: Showmen's Rest, Hugo, OK | Circus Train Wreck, Durand, MI

Memorial to Circus Train Wreck Dead

Woodlawn Cemetery

Address:
7600 W. Cermak Rd, Forest Park, IL
Directions:
In the Showmen's Rest section of Woodlawn Cemetery. Entrance on the east side of Des Plaines Ave. just north of 22nd St./W. Cermak Rd. Ask for directions to the Showmen's Rest section.
Hours:
Call for cemetery hours.
RA Rates:
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