The Egress For Mr. Barnum’s Circus

In 1888, Barnum paraded elephants as a highlight to test the strength of the Stratford Avenue Bridge.

Just about everything and everyone has a shelf life. Even the circus started by P.T. Barnum–Bridgeport mayor, philanthropist, business impresario–the single greatest contributor to Bridgeport’s history. Kenneth Feld, chief executive of the company that produces Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey announced it will close in May, writing on the company website “ticket sales have been declining but following the transition of elephants off the road, we saw an even more dramatic drop.”

Ringling circus
The circus meets its egress in May.

What’s interesting about the circus is it was Barnum’s retirement project,” Kathy Maher, director of Bridgeport’s Barnum Museum, told the CT Post. “It recreated his American Museum into a new form. He had already had an extraordinary life.”

Excerpt from my book Only In Bridgeport.
Barnum’s circus career took off in 1870 with the formation of his immense circus. “The Greatest Show on Earth” consisted of a museum, menagerie and eventually a grand three-ring circus that required 500 men, numerous horses and a 70-car freight train to transport it through the country. Bridgeport became the circus capital of the world when Barnum selected it as the winter headquarters–the site was a 10-acre lot in the West End along Wordin Avenue, Norman Street and Railroad Avenue. Daily, downtown Bridgeport was treated to visits from the most famous circus characters, including William F. “Buffalo Bill: Cody.

On November 20, 1887, an evening fire destroyed the winter headquarters, killing nearly all the animals except for several elephants and a lion, which escaped into the streets and nearby barns. Barnum’s “sacred” white elephant was killed in the blaze. Barnum, the eternal optimist, immediately began erecting another winter headquarters.

“I am not in show business alone to make money. I feel it my mission, as long as I live, to provide clean, moral, and healthful recreation for the public to which I have so long catered,” Barnum explained.

Even in the last years of his life Barnum never lost his enthusiasm for a masterful publicity stunt. One of his last Bridgeport gimmicks took place in 1888. The Stratford Avenue Bridge was replaced by a new iron structure and Barnum assured everyone of its safety by parading twelve elephants weighing 36 tons onto the bridge.

Throughout his life, Barnum was cursed by fires; his Iranistan home, New York museum (twice burned) and winter headquarters all were hit by fire. In 1880 Barnum formed a partnership with circus associate James A. Bailey, who carried on the circus after Barnum’s death. The Barnum & Bailey Circus was sold to the Ringling Brothers in 1907, and the new owners moved the headquarters to Sarasota Florida, in 1927.

In the fall of 1890, a stroke confined Barnum to his home. In his final letter to his partner James Bailey, the Greatest Showman on Earth reflected on his career:
Never cater to the baser instincts of humanity, strive as I have always done to elevate the moral tone of amusements, and always remember that the children have ever been our best patrons. I would rather hear the pleased laugh of a child over some feature of my exhibition than receive as I did the flattering compliments of the Prince of Wales. I am prouder of my title ‘The Children’s Friend’ than if I were to be called ‘The King of the World.’

I regret exceedingly that my bodily weakness prevents my being present at the exhibition in New York, for I veritably believe that if I could again see the rows of bright-faced children at our matinees and observe their eyes grow round with wonder or hear their hearty laughter, it would do me more good than all the medicine in the world.

Barnum died five days later on April 7, 1891. The public and press reacted with intense sorrow. “The death of Barnum ends a unique career, and no singular combination of traits and talents survives to compete with his memory,” wrote the New York Tribune. “It is probably safe to say that not more than half a dozen persons now living, including reigning sovereigns, are known by name to so many millions of their fellow beings as was Barnum.”

“The death of P.T. Barnum may not ‘eclipse the gaiety of nations,’ but it takes out of the world one who has added more to this gaiety than perhaps any other man who has ever lived,” noted the New York World.

“Bridgeport has long since outgrown the influence of any one man, but still so far as civilization has penetrated, Bridgeport has been associated with his name and is known as the city in which he made his home,” wrote the Bridgeport Standard.

Bridgeport has indeed outgrown the influence of any one man, but no man has had more influence on Bridgeport than P.T. Barnum, a man who cherished friendships with Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, a man so famous that he wrote of receiving letters from foreign countries addressed simply “P.T. Barnum, America” and a man who made Bridgeport a better place to live.



  1. Thank goodness the suffering and abuse of all the animals at Ringling will soon come to an end! And the thousands of protesters at the hundreds of circus shows at Harbor Yard Arena and elsewhere over many years have finally prevailed. I wrote this article a few years ago on the history of the circus in Bridgeport.
    “Will The Circus Ever Leave Town–Elephant Abuse in Bridgeport”

  2. People are divided on the circus and the treatment of its animals. I do not want to see an animal abused just for entertainment. The loss of the circus has a trickle-down effect too. The loss of a job for many of the performers. You can’t say too bad, who wants to see anyone lose their job and feel good about it because they worked for the circus. The arena has days open that were used for the yearly show. What are they going to replace these days with?

    Was the arena aware the last performance was just that, the last one? Let’s hope the animals live out their lives in comfort and the workers find jobs too.

  3. I think it’s a shame a piece of American history was destroyed by a few members of PETA who were sued for their relentless persecution of the Feld Entertainment Company that owns Ringling Bros. They put over 400 people out of work based on video that showed questionable training methods although it didn’t tell you if that video was the exception or the rule. I thank God I had the opportunity and the pleasure of taking my five children and my two grandsons to see this entertaining enterprise so they could see the Greatest Show on Earth, elephants included.

    1. Donald, it was thousands of protesters all over the country who protested for over 20 years. A few sweet memories at the circus do not override the cruel treatment of these animals. Wild animals should never be used for our entertainment. How do you think they get elephants to stand on their heads or tigers to jump through fire hoops? They don’t feed them treats. They torture them. Many US cities are banning animals in entertainment. Over 30 countries have done the same. Unfortunately circuses in general, animals or not, are dying. The Big Apple Circus (with no animals) just filed for bankruptcy the other day.
      Madeline Dennis Raleigh

  4. When the Circus came to Town

    4:00am on Circus Day my phone rang. It was my cousin Larry with his high-pitched voice screaming into the phone “the Circus train just pulled down Railroad Ave!” The Railroad had a track ramp that came down and ran from Fairfield Ave to South Ave making a turn at what is now Santa Fuel. That track and ramp could still be there.

    I would scream back “I’ll be over to your house in 15 minutes!” I lived on Butler Ave, I and my two brothers would work our asses off for free tickets to the Big Top. Larry live in the South End on Walnut St. one block from Seaside Park; he always had his ear to ground when the Circus came to town. It was exciting to be part of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, helping to get the Main Tent up, pulling ropes helping with the grandstand, rolling platforms in place, doing whatever the Circus people would be screaming at us to do, for four hours. I and my bothers were used to that coming from an Irish family, it was second nature for us, there was a few hundred kids running around Seaside Park between the horses, the elephants and those flucking midgets, everyone helped, it was the best part of the Circus for me, an army of people with leaders for every job. The Circus people always kept us safe, at no time did they put us in danger. The Main Tent went up pretty fast, the horses would pull the main pole up while the elephants would hold the ropes tight on the opposite side of the tent as the main mast went up, next came the other two poles, the grandstand then the three rings, using the elephants, horses and mules things would go pretty fast.

    By the time 10 o’clock rolled around we were exhausted and the Big Top was up! I was hungry, dirty as hell, I was so damn tired, I wanted to go back home and sleep. We would work all morning for free Big Top tickets for that late afternoon show only.

    I miss the smell of sawdust, horse and elephant shit, and that Great Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

    Someone said why don’t I joint the DTC, they have all of that and more, except the sawdust and PETA.

    That was the first and only time I worked for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

  5. Over 56 million animals are killed in America each year and most are done so in less than a humane way whatever a humane way to die is and the circus animals weren’t killed.

    The fact is most of the people who quit going did so because of the inhumane way those protesters yelled and harassed their children when they took them to the circus. You don’t like the circus, don’t go, but if the death of animals is the problem you should start with the killing of those 56 million that are being slaughtered, but you can’t do that with a hamburger in your hands.

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