When the Circus Came to Town

Published 6:06 pm Friday, November 26, 2021

In 1908, the John H. Sparks circus visited Washington. Circus shows started to frequent Washington as soon as railroad tracks came into town in the late 1890s, allowing the transportation of the big shows. Children would eagerly await the street parade through town as the circus would unload at the railroad depot and proceed toward Fleming Park located off West 3rd Street between Hackney Avenue and Washington Street.  The processions consisted of wagon cages full of elephants, lions, camels, and other exotic animals.

Railroads often offered discount fares to entice the public to bring circus goers from the surrounding countryside to Washington. Even the river steamers would schedule special excursions to coincide with the show.

In anticipation of these “railroad shows,” merchants in town would tempt circus goers with discounts and prizes. The merchant, D. R. Willis, even offered to give a barrel of White Frost Flour to the “ugliest couple” to visit the circus. The decision was to be made by the ever so enthusiastic clowns.

Besides the acrobats and clowns, unique attractions and performances were included during a circus. Like the one at the 1899 visit of the Sparks Circus. A double-balloon ascension and parachute leap was planned but had to be canceled “owing to an accident when the balloon was burned completely up.” An earlier 1895 show included performances by trained ponies, dogs, and even singing roosters.

Circuses continued to be popular in Washington through the 1930s and beyond until other forms of family entertainment such as motion pictures and television replaced them.


Ray Midgett is a Washington historian and the president of the Historic Port of Washington Project.