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When Barnum’s 3-Ring Circus was on York’s Penn Common

Southward view towards Soldiers and Sailors Monument in York’s Penn Common (S. H. Smith, 2014)

Today the Soldiers and Sailors Monument stands at a prominent place in York’s Penn Common, however in the early morning darkness of Saturday September 16th, 1876, three monster trains, containing 120 railroad cars, pulled into York, Pennsylvania. They occupied one of the double tracked rails of the Northern Central Railroad, stretching all the way from West Princess Street and continuing a great distance into Spring Garden Township along Kings Mill Road. Sunrise witnessed giant tents of P. T. Barnum’s Centennial Edition of the Greatest Show on Earth making their way to Penn Common for two performances.

By the time the street parade was underway at 9:00 O’clock in the morning, all the tents had been erected. Crowds filled the 1:00 O’clock and 7:00 O’clock performances. The festivities were topped off with a magnificent fireworks display following the evening performance, and then the tents came down, the railroad cars were loaded and after midnight the trains left for the circus to repeat their daily routine on Sunday in Richmond, Virginia.

P. T. Barnum made his only prior circus appearance in York during 1872, although some of his individual attractions were exhibited in town as early as the 1840s. The 1872 circus was small compared to the centennial edition. For the Centennial year, Barnum decided to organize an over-the-top colossal show. He purchased four circus troupes to add to his own circus troupe. All these entertainers required Barnum to create a giant entertainment venue; the birth of the three-ring circus.

P. T. Barnum’s circus engagements in York, Pennsylvania, during the 1800s

P. T. Barnum normally did not travel with his circus during their complete runs, however for the run of the 1876 Centennial Edition of the Greatest Show on Earth he traveled with the show everywhere it went. The following shows how P. T. Barnum advertised his Saturday September 16th, 1876, appearance in York, Pennsylvania. The ad is from the back page of the Friday September 8th, 1876 issue of The Evening Dispatch in York, PA; and is from the newspaper microfilms of the York County History Center.

I discovered that the Greatest Show on Earth was in York during September of 1876 while researching Billmeyer & Small’s involvement with the Centennial Exhibition via Philadelphia newspapers. Further research via local newspaper microfilms of the York County History Center provided the details about the circus activities and performance location in York. That research was also used in the following installment of the historically accurate multi-generational fictional tale: RAILCAR GOLD Chapter 14 . . Centennial . . Part 6.

P. T. Barnum’s circus would later visit York, PA, in 1878, 1882, 1884 and 1887. Phineas Taylor Barnum died April 7, 1891; his circus continued as Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, which continued performing in York during the 1890s. The Circus Troupe of James A. Bailey was one of those that P. T. Barnum had purchased for the Centennial Edition of his circus.

In 1890, the City of York developed Penn Common into a public park. The planting of trees and placement of monuments within Penn Park caused other York area venues to be utilized when a circus came to town. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument, placed in the memory of York County soldiers and sailors from the War of the Rebellion 1861-1865, was dedicated on Flag Day in 1898.

In 1896, Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth performed in the east end of York. That location was just east of Diehl Mill Road (now North Sherman Street) on the 11-acre estate of Daniel Loucks. That circus engagement is written about in the post: East End Circus brings First Auto to York in 1896.

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