The Vagabond – Largest circus in U.S. visited Gadsden in 1899


The Ringling Brothers Circus made its first appearance in Gadsden on Nov. 8, 1899. Ringling Brothers was a rival of the Barnum & Bailey show and equally as large and imposing. The two big outfits were later combined later and still bears the name of Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus.

The show grounds were located at the south end of Fourth Street in what was called The Flats area near where the Gadsden Mall is now located. The Vagabond believes that the old Barrel Springs was probably located near where the back of Southern Data is located.

The road to the circus is now known as Old South Fourth Street. The road eventually connected with today’s Rainbow Drive, which in the old days was called the Cahaba Road and later the Ashville Road.

In two performances, the Ringling Brothers circus was said to have had 15,000 paid admissions. Admission was 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children under the age of 12.

A giant and colorful circus parade drew thousands of others to the city. The circus’ big tent was crowded to capacity day and night. But the parade was enough for many who could not afford to attend the two exhibitions under canvas. In fact, it was the most gorgeous spectacle of its kind ever seen here up to that time.

The parade was an immense affair that was divided into 30 huge sections, each illustrating some national character noted historic event, such as the British invasion of the Punjab, the siege of Troy and the triumphant battles of the Spanish-American war. Five trains of double-length cars were required to transport it to Gadsden. 

Special attention that year was given to a trained animal display in which huge pachyderms actually presented plays and farces with an intelligence and clever appreciation of the power of expression by means of pantomime such as no human actors could surpass. Souder’s elephant brass band was the most sensationally-trained animal feature ever seen in America.

The O’Brien 61 Horse Act, the most remarkable instance of trained equine intelligence on record, performed as one in a ring. 

It is likely that no better troupe of such animals had ever been seen in the country.

Among other animals to be seen was a pair of rare and beautiful black tigers, a multi-natured horned-horse and a pair of genuine Nubian hippos.

The new patriotic introductory spectacle, “The Last Days of the Century,” was said to be “the most gorgeously magnificent display of the kind ever attempted.” The display lived up to the press man’s billing.

Since that day in 1899 in Gadsden, Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus has undergone many changes of one sort and another, but down underneath it is the same old sawdust spectacle that features acrobats, horses, clowns and the like.

While there was fully 15,000 people in Gadsden during the circus, there was considerable drinking, and it was remarkable that there was not a single arrest. The local people were on their best behavior and the hardest work the 30 local policemen had to do was do nothing.

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