By Doug Hylton
As the city of Ronceverte continued to grow with the expansion of the large sawmill of the Saint Lawrence Boom and Manufacturing Company, the city also began to look to the need of its citizens to be entertained.
During the 1880s and 1890s, the community became a magnet for traveling entertainment including traveling circuses. Virginia Yates’ “History of Ronceverte,” lists the Robinson’s Show, a well-known circus show, visiting the town on Oct. 6, 1881, when Ronceverte was a fledgling lumber town known as Saint Lawrence Ford. The event was described as “being largely attended. The crowd was simply immense. All ages and conditions were fully represented, including the halt and lame, the rich and the poor – humanity, in fact, was present in all its different hues and phases! Several fights – Samuel Killbreth (black) was dangerously shot by John Handly (white) near Prices Stores as they went home.”
These circus events apparently continued until the city commission decided they needed to regulate such entertainment. The commission minutes of May 13, 1886, established licensing regulations for circuses and menageries. A permit for circuses was set at $30 and for both circuses and menageries at $50.
One such circus to make visits to Ronceverte was the Sells Down Circus. Sells Brothers Enormous United Shows started near Columbus, OH, in 1871 when Lewis Sells bought castoff circus equipment and invested $6,500 into what became the Sells Brothers Circus. He was joined in 1872 by his brothers, Peter, Allen, and Ephraim, and the circus had its first exhibition in Columbus on April 27, 1872.
One of the really big features of the Sells Brothers Enormous United Shows was their elephants. At the time, most circuses transported their elephants by wagon, but the Sells Brothers wanted their star attractions to only go first class, so they constructed a number of specially designed railroad cars that could transport their giant beasts from one town to another. The circus was to take to the rails in 1878, and in the 1880s, the Sells Brothers Circus became one of the largest and most successful circuses in the country. At its peak, the show included a 328-foot big top, six other large tents, 322 workers, 64 performers, 50 cages of wild animals, 13 elephants, and seven camels.
From its beginning, the Sells Circus experienced a series of disasters and setbacks. These included its early beginnings in the 1870s when all funds were lost with a bank closure, a train wreck in 1882 in London, KY, that killed many of their performers and animals, a loss of all their menagerie in 1891 when an infectious disease stuck the circus during a tour to Australia. Then, there was another setback that was to impact not only the circus but also the city of Ronceverte.
It is from an article published by the Greenbrier Independent on June 8, 1950, a witness, W. F. Beard, tells how as a teenager, he witnessed the events of August 5, 1906, when the Sells Down circus train stalled in Big Bend Tunnel, resulting in the death of over 300 apes and monkeys. Beard had run away from home in Gadsden, AL, at the age of 14 and joined the circus. Always fond of horses and music, he was one of the proudest boys in the land as he traveled over the U.S. and Canada as the driver of eight sleek black horses pulling the circus bandwagon in parades.
The circus had completed a run in Charleston and was headed to Ronceverte for another show. Following a stop at Hinton, the circus train left heading for Ronceverte. Whether it was due to the size of the circus cars which were modified to handle the elephants, or simply a mechanical problem, the train stalled in the middle of Big Bend Tunnel. The engineer, Mark Maloney, made numerous efforts to back the locomotive to take up the slack in an effort to get the train underway, but the train refused to budge. Meanwhile the smoke and gas in the tunnel became insufferable. A “helper” engine was dispatched from Hinton, but all members of the monkey family, which were extremely sensitive to gas, has succumbed. A sad circus crew, red-eyed from smoke and sorrow, went about the task of mass burial of the primates the next day in a long trench at Ronceverte.
The Beard article continues, “On some future day when people begin digging around Ronceverte, some scientist is going to have himself a time trying to describe early West Virginia life. For beneath the ground now occupied by the Virginia Western Power Company of Ronceverte, a thousand miles from the jungle, lie the bones of more than 300 monkeys and apes. They were buried there on August 6, 1906, when the Sells Downs Circus arrived in Ronceverte after showing the previous day in Charleston.”
This writer has always heard the story of the monkeys being buried at the site of the former Virginia Western Power Company. This burial would have taken place before the large power plant was constructed in 1917. Still, this would mean that the “large trench” mentioned in the story would have required the train stop on one of the main rail lines into town. The late Willard Church, when I asked him about the burial, stated that he thought the burial took place at the location of the former Greenbrier Laundry. This could be true as there runs a rail spur which would have held the circus train as it stopped to set up in Ronceverte for its shows.
Probably once the train had arrived from Big Bend Tunnel, the circus crews would have discovered the dead monkeys as they unloaded the animals for a show. Whether at the former power company location or the property adjacent to the old Greenbrier Laundry, somewhere in West Ronceverte, along the CSX tracks off Monroe Avenue, lies a monkey cemetery, unique to any other burial site within the state of West Virginia.
One positive outcome of this disaster was that Beard left the circus in Ronceverte. He took a job on the C&O Railroad and subsequently married Mrs. Bessie R. Humphries, an attractive widow in Ronceverte. In the course of his duties as brakeman and conductor, he made thousands of trips through Ronceverte. But he never passed the town without recalling the burial of the monkeys.
As for the Sells Down Circus, the demanding circus and personal problems in the family led to a gradual transfer of ownership of their three ring circus. Ephriam died in 1898, and James Bailey purchased his interest in Sells Brothers circus. It merged with the circus operated by Adam Forepaugh to form the Forepaugh-Sells Brothers’ Circus in 1900. Both Peter and Allen died in 1904 and Lewis lost interest in the show and he then sold all interest of the Sells family to Bailey. In 1906, Bailey died and, during the time of the Big Bend Tunnel incident, the entire circus was transferred to the Ringling Brothers.
At the time, circuses were being merged, and the Sells Circus was added to with elements of a smaller Down Circus, hence the Sells Down Circus mentioned in this article. For the next six or seven years, the Sells Brothers circus continued operating under that name. The Columbus headquarters were closed in 1910 and the Sells Brothers name eventually faded away and the circus became just another part of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth.
Ronceverte continues to hold a place in circus history as final resting place for a collection of primates who had the bad luck of traveling on a unfortunate train one early August day in 1906.