Hammond train catastrophe – the legend behind the elephant graveyard

Piercing through the night, a far-off sound is heard. It could be a train, barreling towards some new destination, or merely the wailing of the wind. But then again, to many Riverside residents, it sounds more like the trumpeted cry of elephants, echoing from the confines of nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.

Many believe these sounds to be the cries of elephants which perished in a train wreck which occurred nearly a hundred years ago. While the train wreck itself was an actual event documented by historians, many of the stories which have sprung up around it are not rooted in truth.

On the date of June 22, 1918 members of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus were on their way to a performance in Hammond, Indiana. None of the passengers had any idea that an empty troop train was hurtling towards them at 60 miles per hour, its driver asleep at the throttle.

Steel twisted, sparks flew from the tracks, and when the kerosene lamps used for lighting hit the floor, the train was consumed by fire. The event proved to be one of the greatest train disasters in American history.

A total of 86 people, all of them circus performers, perished in the wreck and another 127 were left injured by the accident. The performance scheduled for that very same day would never go on.

Many of the unclaimed dead were laid to rest at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park and buried together in a plot purchased by the Showmen’s League of America. Some of the recovered bodies, burned beyond recognition, were never identified. Their gravestones are marked only with the words “unknown” followed by a series of numbers. There are even gravestones where the only names engraved in the marble slabs are the circus performers’ jobs and nicknames such as “4 horse driver” and “Baldy”.

Five grave markers in the shape of elephants were placed around the borders of the plot, their trunks pointed down as a sign of mourning. This area later became known as Showmen’s Rest.

Over time, people began to believe that these unusual markers had been placed in the cemetery over the bodies of circus elephants that had perished in the train wreck along with the performers. In actuality, there were no animals and certainly no elephants present on the train the night of the fateful crash.

Exactly how the story of Showmen’s Rest first came to be altered will forever remain a mystery, but in the end the truth behind the ghostly legend is far more horrific than any of the rumors which have come to surround it through the years.