Feats of Strength: A Mythical Case Road Locomotive

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Right: An illustration of Hercules in the 1892 Courier, a Ringling publication. Apparently, the same drawing had appeared in several advertisements.
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Bob Rhodes’ interpretation of Case’s road locomotive, Hercules.

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;
case65@earthlink.net

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