Circus Routes

Mapping the Travelling Circus

This project was made with data collected from the Circus Historical Society, whose enthusiasm is just as large as their varied collection of circus artifacts.

The maps themselves are built from a small sampling of a larger project, still in need of server space. The proposed project is a database for over 100 years of circus route data from over 100 different travelling troupes. 

Exploring the interactive maps

Each color on the map represents a different month in the tour. You can click on a specific point to see more about that particular show or interact with the larger version by clicking on the frame icon in the top right corner.

1863: the Gardner & Hemmings Circus route

Right in the middle of the Civil War (with the transcontinental railroad still six years from completion) the Gardner & Hemming’s troupe  was three months into their tour, playing six nights a week, when their story gets interrupted by a Confederate raid just east of Columbus, Ohio. 

The commander of a Confederate cavalry, Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan, has led his army into the north and they are close by. Having traveled 15 miles overnight, the troupe wakes up in Lancaster to find all the town’s citizens armed. Everyone’s on high alert and the tension must affect their show – which goes on nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the next stop of their tour is in Somerset – which seems to almost follow Morgan’s own plans. They arrive in town to find all the bells ringing. Again, the show goes on. Then Zanesville – Morgan and his posse are closer than ever. All the town’s men are mounted on horseback, at the ready. The Provost Marshal has ordered all horses be taken to aid in the capture of Morgan and his soldiers. The Gardner & Hemming troupe left in a hurry so that they could keep their horses. Leaving Zanesville for Newark, they now face an entire day without stopping for a show – instead travelling in the vulnerable open. Morgan is reportedly making his way towards Columbus, but his route begins to veer northeast. Our troupe however, remains in the dark as to his whereabouts and travel cautiously. The laughter and drinking and whooping it up that generally comes with these too rare days off is replaced by a quiet shuffling and some hesitant card playing.  

Surrender! The relief and celebration made that night’s show in Newark play harder than ever. And yet, while the crowd follows the troupe’s daring feats with a newfound joie de vivre, Morgan himself has managed to escape – slipping casually onto a train bound for Cincinnati before crossing the Ohio River back into confederate territory. Though Morgan’s Raid was largely unsuccessful, it drew tens of thousands of U.S. troops away from other duties and forced these Ohioan northerners to confront the reality of their vulnerability. 

1896: the Forepaugh-Sells Circus route

Since 1872, transcontinental train travel had been growing fast within the circus world, meaning more shows in less time. This is the first route of the circus collaboration between the Forepaugh and Sells Brothers Circus. The 1896 tour covered 15,832 miles, and hosted 187 shows in just 215 days. Typically, the troupe would only skip Sundays – using the day off to cover more ground.

Adam J. Forepaugh had already died in 1890, but one of the Bailey brothers had bought it along with James Cooper, deciding to keep the well-known name. The Forepaugh-Sells troupes toured across the country together through at least 5 more seasons: 1898, 1899, 1900, 1902, and 1904. By 1912, the Forepaugh name had mostly disappeared, but the Sells Brothers troupe continued touring through the 1960’s.

1937: the Barnes & Sells-Floto Circus route

The Sells Brothers Circus & Sideshow joined with the Floto Dog & Pony Show early on in the 1900’s. Previously, the Sells Brothers had travelled with Adam Forepaugh’s troupe (a.k.a. 4-Paws). Though this combined troupe traveled together frequently, the Barnes addition was less common. Alpheus George Barnes Stonehouse is the man behind the Al G. Barnes circus. During this 1937 route, they covered 20,016 miles togerther in 216 shows over 8 months. By 1929, all three troupes were incorporated into the American Circus Corporation.


Google My Maps: route visualizing

Though earlier attempts were made in Tableau, it turned out that that system didn’t recognize a lot of the small towns a turn-of-the-century circus troupe might visit. Uploading a CSV-turned-Excel file to Google My Maps – a new(ish) program run off the Google Maps engine – meant that even the smallest places could be recognized. Google My Maps provided the extra benefit of being able to chart estimated distance (e.g. in August, the Forepaugh-Sells Circus traveled over 1,900 miles  through the Pacific Northwest region). It also allowed for stops along the route to feature image or video annotation (direct from google’s image search or youtube).

*To see how these maps were made & learn how to make your own, watch my tutorial on beginning mapping skills.

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