At the crack of four ayem in Fort McDermitt near the Oregon border all the kids are roused from the arms of Morpheus to dress, dine and dash to the waiting school buses. But the bleary-eyed parents meet little resistance – these kids are off to the circus! A similar scene is being played out on this August Saturday morning in four Nevada counties, and tykes from ages six to 14 are hitting the decks – in Humboldt House, Tungsten, Paradise Valley, Battle Mountain, Valmy, Unionville, Getchell Mine and Imlay. By car and school bus they’ll make their drowsy way to Winnemucca, and board the Western Pacific passenger train, destination Mackay Stadium, because the Shrine Circus is in town – all aboard!
They’ll find on the train a bunch of clowns, played out by Shrine members and Western Pacific employees and led by the head clown for the day, who in real life resembled the late District Judge Merwyn H. Brown of Winnemucca. Brown was a popular and celebrated Nevadan, and former Shrine Potentate. He was instrumental in putting this day together in 1949 and shepherding it along for the six years that it lasted. In an August 19, 1953 interview for the Nevada State Journal he cited the tremendous cooperation that the Shrine received from the Western Pacific Railroad. Who else would virtually donate a 24-car train and help the Shriners stock the center two baggage cars with box lunches, milk, ice cream, soda pop, peanuts, popcorn, Cracker Jack and other goodies? (Four thousand bottles of soft drinks, all donated by local businesses, were consumed on the 1953 run.)
And who would dress up one railroad and one Winnemucca doctor and a contingent of nurses like clowns to help out with the 1,200 kids who would eventually board, as the train chugs out of Winnemucca with stops along the way picking up even more kids in Sulphur, Jungo and Gerlach in Nevada, and (over the California border briefly) Herlong? Who? And here’s a fun one: who would buy special water-based paint so that Winnemucca children, and those along the way, could “decorate” the Pullman cars with graffiti telling the world about their adventure? And, on the side of safety, place men with “stop” signs along the train’s route to forestall a vehicle collision in rural Nevada… who?
The Western Pacific Railroad, that’s who – the Feather River Route guys. OK – we’re rolling into Reno, how will we get to the circus in the old Mackay Stadium, which was closer to Virginia Street than the present one? (Somewhere on campus there’s a plaque marking the center of that old classic’s football 50-yard line.) Well, let’s take the train, since all 1,200 of us are already on one. We’ll use the same tracks that the circus and the elephants and tigers and the Big Top arrived on – the tracks that run down Evans Avenue behind the campus. That way we won’t have too far to walk. And how do we stay together? Aha – Judge/Clown Brown and his band of merry men have a rope, a rope long enough for 1,200 kids to hang on to, walking side-by-side from the train to the stadium (where the clowns secured the gates just to prevent one of the older, bolder passengers from walking down to the Wigwam for some hot apple pie.)
The clowns had fun, but safety was paramount for the day. Those who let go of the rope would be fed to the tigers. It was that simple, a harsh word was never uttered, it was great fun for all, and best of all, they never lost a kid in six years. And all saw a real-deal first-line Ringling Brothers circus; the Shriners had brought it to Reno initially in 1947, appearing then on South Virginia Street on the former site of the El Reno Apartments (later to be Washoe Market and now an antique store.) It would move to Mackay the next year. And our excited kids from outlying Nevada joined us locals, to see Victor Julian and his 21 (count ’em) trained dogs with two rhesus monkeys; to see Brigit Hadnig, direct from Munich, who wisely changed her name to Lalage the Unicyclist; to see Amielo and Elvira Sciplini’s six world-renowned chimps, and the Flying Palacios – Lola, Raul, Jose and Lalo, and from a careful perusal of the program’s photo I would surmise that it would take all three of the brothers plus a couple chimps to catch the Flying Lola once she let go of the trapeze – a ballerina she wasn’t.
But heck, it was a great time and most of the kids got to pet an elephant and have a tiger shriek at them. Rumor has it that they slept like little logs on the long choo-choo ride home. They had indeed been to the circus – on a day that they’d never forget, thank you Winnemucca Shrine Club and Western Pacific Railway.
Times have changed; no tracks go near the Livestock Events Center where the Shrine Circus performs now. And few of the excited children of all ages under that Big Top came to Reno by train, having left Winnemucca at this morning’s sunrise, nor clung to a rope to stay with their buddies all the way to the show, but let’s hope that all will have as much fun as these 1,200 children did, some of whom are probably reading this column and taking their grandchildren to the circus. If their memories of this great time in local history reach me by e-mail, well, we might all just read them right here on some otherwise-slow day!
Credit where due on this one goes to Mike Maher at the Nevada Historical Society, now retired. I knew this story existed, but while I was poring over railroad, circus and Shrine files, Mike went right to a Nevada Highways & Parks magazine. He’s a pro… (The photos are courtesy of that magazine.)
If you rode the train, lemme know at kfbreckenridgelive.com ; release your text and name so I can post it here…..
And here’s one now from Mike Mentaberry (at right): “We came from the Mentaberry family’s Washburn Creek Ranch outside McDermitt the weekend prior to the trip to the depot in Winnemucca to paint the cars.
Broker Salesman/Property Manager