Gaiety turned to disaster at River Falls

     One of western Wisconsin's most unusual disasters took place at River Falls June 21, 1893, a day that began with pageantry and gaiety but ended in tragedy.
     At least seven persons, and possibly as many as 19, died when lightning struck the main pole of one of the animal tents of Ringling Brothers Circus.
     The seven persons known killed, four men and three women, lived in Kinnickinnic, Troy, Clifton and Oak Grove townships.

Circus workers killed

     The "River Falls Journal" reported only the deaths of area persons, but some witnesses claimed a number of circus workers were also killed.
     In Greenwood Cemetery at River Falls a dozen small, unmarked marble tombstones are located. Some local residents believe this is the burial spot for the circus workers.
      For many years, Ringling Brothers sent someone to River Falls each Memorial Day to put flowers on these graves.
      Some surmise that Ringling Brothers wished to suppress the actual number of fatalities in hope of avoiding bad publicity. The circus has never admitted any of its employees died in the disaster.

Circus never returned

     Possibly considering its 1983 visit a bad omen, Ringling Brothers Circus has not returned to River Falls since the disaster.
     Prior to the tragedy, the circus made annual appearances in River Falls. Anticipation was high for many weeks before show day as area newspaper advertisements promoted the giant giraffe and the only pair of baby elephants in America.
     The extravaganza began at 10 a.m. "when the streets were lined with an eager and joyous throng to view the splendid pageant of the street parade." Included in the parade were 35 circus wagons drawn by two engines.
     Large tents were raised on outskirts of town near the Kinnickinnic River for afternoon and evening shows. Shortly after 3 p.m. terror struck at one of the tents.
     It was hot and stormy, the type of day that puts both man and beast on edge.
     Many circus-goers took shelter in the animal tents as thunder and lightning became more severe. It was there that at least seven persons were killed.

'Blinding flash'

     "A blinding flash of lightning filled the tent with a sheet of fire, followed instantly by a terrific crash as of the discharge of heavy cannon paralyzed the groups of sightseers," the "River Falls Journal" reported.
     The huge pole was reduced to splinters. The lightning also caused a gasoline reservoir to explode.
     Five of the seven known fatalities were caused by lightning. The other two persons apparently died of wounds received from shattered wood or burning gasoline.
     "The scenes of confusion and consternation that followed when the survivors began to realize the extend of the fatality and the nearness of their own peril beggars description. Dazed men, women and children surged in great crowds, some forced by curiosity toward the scene of disaster, some terror-stricken, fleeing by every exit out into the pouring rain, some white with horror seeing the sheet of flame that flashed on their vision," the "Journal" continued.
     Approximately 30 persons were injured in the disaster. Many of the injured were taken to the river to be revived as there were no hospitals in the city at the time.
     Bodies of the dead were identified at the old fire hall. Positive identification took some time as the faces of some victims were blackened by the lighting. Several freakish incidents were reported - jewelry was melted by the lightning and persons were left paralyzed and dead.
     Before nightfall, the circus packed up and left River Falls for the last time.

Early roots in Rice Lake

     Ringling Brothers Circus was linked to the area in other ways. Many claim the circus had its early roots in Rice Lake.
     Although records maintained by the circus do not mention it, the Ringling family apparently lived for a number of years in Rice Lake. The exact time span is not known, but the father and mother and one son and one daughter are believed to have lived there about eight years.
     August Ringling, father of the seven Ringling brothers, moved to Rice Lake in 1882, the same year his sons gave their first show.
     Beginning in 1882 as a show and concert troupe, it was almost two years before the Ringlings branched out into the circus business.
     During the late 19th century, however, a number of Rice Lake area Residents were connected with the circus, either as performers or in related occupations such as harness makers.

--Steve Kinderman

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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