Raney: 'We have seen it'

Raney: 'We have seen it'

January 21st, 2018 by Suzette Raney in Opinion Columns

Elephants parade down a Chattanooga street before P.T. Barnum's traveling circus performance.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Updated at 9:18 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 to correct information about W.C. Gardenhire.

"We Have Seen It" was the caption for the Dec. 2, 1872, Chattanooga Daily Herald article on the Greatest Show on Earth. P.T. Barnum, the "Prince of Humbugs," brought entertainment and education to town in his Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, Hippodrome and Zoological Garden.

Barnum first showcased his menageries and oddities in his American Museum in lower Manhattan, New York City. Its attractions made it a combination zoo, museum, lecture hall, wax museum, theater and freak show and included a flea circus, a rifle range, glass blowers, an oyster bar, pretty-baby contests, a 25-inch Tom Thumb, and Shakespearean drama.

After the museum burned in 1865, William Cameron Coup, a Wisconsin businessman, supported him in touring the country with "P.T. Barnum's Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan, & Hippodrome." His circus train took its acts and animals to those who until then could only read about such things.

Barnum brought his circus to Chattanooga on Nov. 30, 1872, just a few years after the end of the Civil War. His ad began on Nov. 19 and ran until the show date, taking up a third of the Daily Herald's front page. Barnum promised more than 100,000 living and representative curiosities. To see the show cost an adult $1 and a child 50 cents — or nothing if you bought his autobiography, "The Life of P. T. Barnum," for $2.25. Regardless of how you paid, the Herald reported a show at which "you got the full value of your money."

Read more Chattanooga History Columns

If you couldn't pay the price of admission or buy the book, you could enjoy the unloading and loading of the railroad cars. Barnum was one of the first circus owners to transport his circus by rail and was probably one of the first to own his own train. Once unloaded, the animals and circus wagons joined in a parade, whetting the appetite of the town folk for the coming show.

What did Chattanoogans see in the six colossal tents? For mechanical marvels, you could gaze at the Bell Ringers, the Sleeping and Breathing Beauty, and the Dying Zouave, the most life-like automaton figures you would ever see.

There were numerous wax figures of well-known personages. In the animal exhibits, you could view rhinoceroses, camels, an elephant and a white polar bear as well as the equestrian goat, the performing bear and the miniature horses in the arena. In the aquarium tent, land lubbers gawked at a living sea cow (manatee), sea lions and seals.

The grand tent with its great double ring seated 12,000 visitors. Its 5,000 gas jets illuminated more than 100 performers and animals executing feats that formed the "most brilliant and dazzling spectacle that we have ever seen or ever expect to see again." A man and his wife pedaled a one-wheel velocipede, the forerunner of today's bicycle.

One exhibit had a Chattanooga connection: the Fiji Cannibals, "the only living specimens of that man-eating race of human beings that had ever been seen in a civilized country." The link was through Union Army Col. W.C. Gardenhire. After serving in the Civil War, he journeyed to California and then to Fiji. He brought four native islanders with him when he returned to California in 1871. Col. Gardenhire first exhibited them to the public for up to $150 a day and later sold them to P.T. Barnum for $20,000. (Afterwards Gardenhire settled in Rhea County and laid out the town of Dayton, according to an 8/1/83 Chattanooga News-Free Press story.)

Other circuses besides several more Barnums later came to Chattanooga, including Van Amburg & Co. in 1878. Cole's Circus came with a great electric light show in 1879. Coup's Circus gave a splendid street parade in 1881. That same year Barnum merged with James Bailey to become "Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth."

P.T. Barnum died in 1906, and the Ringling Brothers purchased his production, eventually merging the two in 1919 to create the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth. The show closed in 2017, never more to bring elephants, tigers and clowns to towns across America. None of the circuses that later came to Chattanooga matched the dizzying vision of P.T. Barnum. Circus trains and parades are gone but the memory of "Greatest Show on Earth" lives on.

Suzette Raney is the archivist of the Chattanooga Public Library. To read more about Chattanooga and circuses, go to the public library or call 643-7725. Also visit Chatta historicalassoc.org.

CORRECTION: Last Sunday's Local History column should have stated the Battle of Tunnel Hill occurred in Tennessee. The Times Free Press regrets the editing error.

Getting Started/Comments Policy

Getting started

  1. 1. If you frequently comment on news websites then you may already have a Disqus account. If so, click the "Login" button at the top right of the comment widget and choose whether you'd rather log in with Facebook, Twitter, Google, or a Disqus account.
  2. 2. If you've forgotten your password, Disqus will email you a link that will allow you to create a new one. Easy!
  3. 3. If you're not a member yet, Disqus will go ahead and register you. It's seamless and takes about 10 seconds.
  4. 4. To register, either go through the login process or just click in the box that says "join the discussion," type your comment, and either choose a social media platform to log you in or create a Disqus account with your email address.
  5. 5. If you use Twitter, Facebook or Google to log in, you will need to stay logged into that platform in order to comment. If you create a Disqus account instead, you'll need to remember your Disqus password. Either way, you can change your display name if you'd rather not show off your real name.
  6. 6. Don't be a huge jerk or do anything illegal, and you'll be fine.

Chattanooga Times Free Press Comments Policy

The Chattanooga Times Free Press web sites include interactive areas in which users can express opinions and share ideas and information. We cannot and do not monitor all of the material submitted to the website. Additionally, we do not control, and are not responsible for, content submitted by users. By using the web sites, you may be exposed to content that you may find offensive, indecent, inaccurate, misleading, or otherwise objectionable. You agree that you must evaluate, and bear all risks associated with, the use of the Times Free Press web sites and any content on the Times Free Press web sites, including, but not limited to, whether you should rely on such content. Notwithstanding the foregoing, you acknowledge that we shall have the right (but not the obligation) to review any content that you have submitted to the Times Free Press, and to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content that we determine, in our sole discretion, (a) does not comply with the terms and conditions of this agreement; (b) might violate any law, infringe upon the rights of third parties, or subject us to liability for any reason; or (c) might adversely affect our public image, reputation or goodwill. Moreover, we reserve the right to reject, delete, disable, or remove any content at any time, for the reasons set forth above, for any other reason, or for no reason. If you believe that any content on any of the Times Free Press websites infringes upon any copyrights that you own, please contact us pursuant to the procedures outlined in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (Title 17 U.S.C. § 512) at the following address:

Copyright Agent
The Chattanooga Times Free Press
400 East 11th Street
Chattanooga, TN 37403
Phone: 423-757-6315
Email: webeditor@timesfreepress.com