When the Circus Came to Town



After the opening of the Mahanoy Tunnel in 1862 , Mahanoy City grew rapidly from a settlement of a few hundred people in the 1850s to a borough of over five thousand in 1870. As the population grew, Mahanoy City began to attract merchants and entreprenuers and soon there were numerous stores lining the streets and dozens of collieries along the hillsides and in the valley. Sometime in the early 1870s traveling circuses began to make Mahanoy City a regular stop on their summer route as they criss-crossed the country on the ever expanding railroad web.

It's hard for us to realize the importance of a circus visit to a town like Mahanoy City in the 1800s and early 1900s. Schools closed as did many factories and businesses so families could attend the circus.



After unloading the tons of equipment and setting up the huge tents, there was usually a parade throughout the community. The Great Wallace Circus parade in 1891 stretched from D Street to Main Street .


There were usually two performances, one in the afternoon and one at night. In Mahanoy City, thousands of circus patrons gathered under the "big top" set up at the Park which we remember as the West End Stadium.

The circus was such a influence on American life in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s that numerous circus terms became a part of everyday American vocabulary.


" As a result of its Golden Age, the circus was indelibly fixed in everyday life, as much as newspapers, the telegraph, the railroad and mail-order catalogues. Circus lingo was adopted into the larger lexicon, adding phrases such as “rain or shine” (used to promote the tented circus through inclement weather), “hold your horses” (a warning to local horsemen when the circus elephants paraded through town), “get the show on the road” (a directive shouted at roustabouts to break down the show and move to the next town), “white elephant” (born out of a battle between competing circuses in the exhibit of a fraudulent white elephant), “jump on the bandwagon” (coined by journalists who witnessed presidential candidate Zachary Taylor climbing aboard a circus bandwagon for public attention) and “grandstanding”(describing politicians who circulated through the circus grandstands vying for voters). Reporters labeled President Woodrow Wilson’s “tossing hishat into the ring” during a Ringling circus performance in Washington, DC as a sign that he would run for reelection."


Source: An Abbreviated History of the Circus in America by Rodney H. Huey, PH.D.







Mahanoy City was always a tough town for the circus troupes. After some historical research, I have uncovered two instances when a visiting circus ran into tough times in "the City on the Level". The first instance occurred in 1879 when the W.C. Coup Circus came to town and the the second occurred in 1891 when the Great Wallace Brothers Circus appeared. Despite the stories which appeared in some newspapers across the country, I could find no evidence that anyone was killed in either of the two riots.












The Circus Riot of 1891 Puts Mahanoy City on the National Map