Remembrance in Stone

Ringling Brothers Circus Monument

County: Richland County, North Dakota

Location: Riverside Cemetery (a.k.a. Bohemian Cemetery) south of Wahpeton, North Dakota

Coordinates: N46o14.430' W96o35.944'

On 10 June 1897 the laborers of the Ringling Brothers Circus were erecting the main tent in Wahpeton, North Dakota, when the skies darkened. As the storm swept in, a bolt of lightning struck and shattered the main tent pole. Two workers, Charles Smith and Charles Walters, were killed by the falling pole. A third man, Charles Miller, would die a year later from injuries suffered that day. The newspaper reported that a dozen other men were knocked senseless by the lightning strike.

Smith, 22 years old, and Walters, 30, were far from home and family, but they would be remembered. Circus people stick together, after all, like family. Moreover, both men were members of the Knights of Pythias, a popular fraternal order. The knights arranged for a proper funeral, while circus workers collected $400 for a monument. The funeral and burial took place folowing the afternoon show (before a crowd of 7000) on the same day as the accident. Burial was in Riverside Cemetery, also known as the Bohemian Cemetery, a mile south of town.

The monument subsequently placed on the gravesite is a stone replica of the tent pole that shattered and killed the unfortunate workers. Most people in Wahpeton are unaware of this unusual and compelling monument, but still today, when a circus comes to town, circus workers come here to pay their respects.--Research by Chloe Quirk, HIST 489, NDSU, Fall 2007

Recommended Reading

Culhane, John. The American Circus: An Illustrated History. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.

Apps, Jerry. Ringlingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2005.

North, Henry Ringling, and Alden Hatch. The Circus Kings: Our Ringling Family Story. Garden City: Doubleday, 1960.

Knights of Pythias / Ringling Bros. and Barnumn & Bailey Circus / Wahpeton-Breckenridge Page on Circus Monument

Photo Gallery
Photos by Chloe Quirk, 9 October 2007

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Remembrance in Stone / Center for Heritage Renewal