In 1892, the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. built a special road locomotive for the Ringling Bros. Circus.
Rumors about it have been floating around the steam community for over 30 years. The engine was named Hercules, for the mythical son of Zeus who performed 12 feats of strength. A few have claimed that the 110 HP Case in Wisconsin's House on the Rock is Hercules, but that machine simply wears livery reminiscent of a showman's engine. It never pulled a circus car.
In the September/October 1994 issue of Iron-Men Album, Mark A. Corson published a story entitled "Ringling Bros. Case Engine." Lured by tales of a mighty circus engine, Mark spent years hunting for clues about Hercules. His detective work turned up an article in the York, Neb., Independent for Friday, May 20, 1892: "A mammoth highway locomotive, that darts hither and thither through the streets, running as easily on the roughest road as the finest passenger engine glides along its tracks of steel, is one of the striking features of the gorgeous street procession that precedes the exhibition of the Ringling Bros.' World's Greatest Shows."
The winter 1992-93 issue of The Heritage Eagle (Eagle #21), included a tantalizing article entitled "Early Circus Motive Power" by Fred H. Dahlinger Jr., director of the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wis. Dahlinger's tireless digging brought these nuggets to light:
• Dec. 24, 1891: John Ringling telegraphed the Case company, "What have you decided in regard to engine?"
• Feb. 10, 1892: A Ringling letter thanked Case for photos documenting the progress on the engine's construction.
• Feb. 18: The Baraboo (Wis.) Republic reported the engine was "nickel-plated throughout," had a cab resembling that of a railroad locomotive, and could draw a dozen animal carts in street parades.
• Feb. 25: Farm Implement News mentioned Case would supply an engineer to run the locomotive.
• March 10: In a letter to Case, the Ringlings complained about a Milwaukee, Wis., newspaper story implying Case was donating Hercules to the circus when, in fact, the Ringlings were paying for the engine.
In a letter, the Ringlings recommended Case purchase steam calliope whistles from William Kirkup & Son in Cincinnati. A Case employee scribbled on the back of the letter that the whistles would have to be small, as the locomotive would be rated at only 16 HP.
"The J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., of Racine, is just completing a twelve-horse power traction engine for the Ringling Bros. of Baraboo. The machine will be nickel-plated, have a cab similar to that of a locomotive and cost $2,000. It will be presented to the circus men upon the condition that they use it to pull their menagerie cages through the streets of cities the coming season."
• April 2: The New York Clipper announced that a calliope was piped to the engine.
• April 23: Crowds thronged to witness the delivery of Hercules to the Ringling headquarters in Baraboo.
• April 28: The Sauk County (Wis.) Democrat described the locomotive as a "remarkably fine piece of mechanism."
The Ringling route book identified Fred G. Hodges as Hercules' engineer and Harry Smith as fireman. Having presented such intriguing details, Dahlinger concluded that "virtually nothing more is known of this highway locomotive." As Dahlinger, Corson and I discovered, the photos Case sent to the Ringling Bros. Circus are lost or gone.
After squinting at microfilm for hours, I turned up the article that prompted the Ringlings' outcry against Case. It had no headline, consisted of only one paragraph, and was buried in the middle of column 3, page 8 of The Daily Journal: Milwaukee for Friday, Feb. 12, 1892: "The J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co., of Racine, is just completing a twelve-horse power traction engine for the Ringling Bros. of Baraboo. The machine will be nickel-plated, have a cab similar to that of a locomotive and cost $2,000. It will be presented to the circus men upon the condition that they use it to pull their menagerie cages through the streets of cities the coming season. The threshing machine company also furnishes an engineer for one year. It is done as a means of advertising the Case engines."
Eagle #21 also carried editor Katherine Pence's description of Corson's painstaking efforts to find information on Hercules. In "The Mystery Continues," Pence said that Corson consulted "sources in various places along the route" of the circus. From historical societies and museums, Corson received Ringling's advertisements proclaiming the magnificence of the Case road locomotive. Representative of such promotional materials is this tribute:
"This gigantic colossus of motive power marks an important epoch in the annals of scientific inventions … and was designed and made expressly for the Ringling Bros. at an enormous expense. The carrying power of 'Hercules' is almost incredible, and the mighty thing thunders along the thorough-fares in the grand street parade with a long line of heavy chariots, cages and dens in its train, which appear as merest trifles to its herculean powers. …"
Corson discovered the odd circumstance that Hercules was returned to Case after only one year. The 1892 Ringling Bros. route book offers this glimpse into the past: "Train wrecked at Concordia, Kan., May 17. Four cars destroyed and 26 horses killed. Many more injured. Two men killed, four badly injured. Show missed one stand (Washington, May 17th), and showed Concordia, May 18th, with sidewall only. Short of stock - bought 18 at Concordia and received carload of 20 at Wichita, May 21st, from Chicago." Was the Case engine loaded on the train and did it survive damage? It is insightful to note that, in an era dependent on the horse, the loss of so many horses was reported before the deaths of two men were mentioned.
Thanks to Dorothy L. Davidson, secretary of the Centralia (Missouri) Historical Society, I received this clipping from page 5 of the Centralia Fireside Guard, Oct. 21, 1892: "Tuesday morning as Ringling Bros.' Circus was passing through here en route to Columbia, one of the cars containing a number of cages jumped the track on the curve by the engine house and upset a number of cages, in one of which was the grizzle [sic] bear which rolled out of his broken cage on the ground, amongst a number of disinterested spectators and probably would have done some damage had he not been promptly lassoed by Frank Jennings, of this place. The hippopotamus, monkeys, parrots and other animals and fowls were scattered around over the ground, affording a free show which, however, was viewed from the distance until the bear was tied, head and feet to a telegraph pole. The trains were delayed here until after 1 o'clock and the date at Columbia was canceled." I wonder just how "disinterested" the witnesses could be at the sight of a grizzly bear roaming freely. More importantly, I wonder if Hercules was loaded on the train.
Hercules made its debut during a season bracketed by train wrecks in May and October. Did these events mar the locomotive? Why was it returned to its builder?
An artist produced an illustration of Hercules in the 1892 Courier, a Ringling publication. The same drawing appeared in several of the advertisements Corson found, and I have seen it in an advertisement that Dave Erb, former editor of Old Abe's News, copied for me. Pence and others have speculated that the illustrator exaggerated the size of the engine, which was rated at only 12 or 16 HP. It was the practice of 19th century artists to depict human beings as overly small in comparison to machines that the advertisers wanted to portray as enormous and powerful. The Ringling illustrator followed this custom of visual hyperbole.
An illustrator myself, I decided to create a computer-enhanced drawing of Hercules (see page 5), and I relied on my Ringling Bros. predecessor. I based my art on The Fast Mail, a print copyrighted in 1875 by J.A. Burch, and on circus car pictures in Dahlinger's Trains of the Circus 1872-1956. I adhered closely to the Ringling artist's work, which may well have been inspired by the production photos that Case provided. Now that I have finished my illustration, I have to ask: Could such an arrangement of connecting rods have been possible?
Rumors about Hercules persist. A friend told me that a man told him that Hercules still exists and was given a new set of tubes at a Milwaukee boiler shop within the past decade. Unfortunately, my friend did not get the man's name, address or telephone number. Maybe it's better not having definite knowledge of the locomotive's features and of the reasons for its demise. As long as the mystery lasts, Hercules continues to live in the glittering circuses of long ago. Perhaps we should hope the true story of Hercules remains forever concealed behind the drapery of the Big Top.
Contact steam historian Robert T. Rhode at: 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066; email@example.com