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Walter Main

Taveling Circus Operator

Walter Main rose to fame during the era commonly known as the “Golden Age of the Circus” (1887-1939). During that period, his eponymous circus was the largest traveling railroad circus in the world. The Walter Main Circus maintained its success until the 1920’s, and is often remembered as being involved with one of the most tragic train wrecks in circus history.

Walter Main was born in Medina County, Ohio, but moved to a farm in Ashtabula County with his family at a young age, where his father became a horse trader and supplied horses to circuses. The detailed stories he’d hear from neighbors and his own father sparked young Main’s fascination with circus life. At 17, Main became an advance man for the Burdick and Allen Circus, and a few years later managed a circus his father owned, the Hillard & Main Circus.

By springtime in 1885, Walter had started his own circus, the Walter Main Circus, with just seven horses and accompanying wagons. It officially opened on April 30, 1886 in Geneva, Ohio.  But by 1890, Walter Main Circus expanded to 114 horses and 10 cages, which drove him to transition to railroad travel.  The circus blazed the trail by becoming the first to reach the west coast by rail, but the same means which drove Walter Main Circus towards innovation also took a tragic turn in 1893. On May 30th, the 19-car train carrying the circus to Tyrone, Pennsylvania lost traction and left the tracks at a high speed after a steep mountain descent. Five men lost their lives, dozens were injured, and even more horses and animals were dead or dying. Despite the significant loss, Main and the circus were able to continue with the show just 9 days later, thanks to the Tyrone townspeople who came to their aid.  

Main reached a significant level of wealth by age 40 and sold his show at an auction in January 1900, retiring himself just four years later. He remained active in the Geneva community as a member of several organizations, including the Geneva Blue Lodge of Masons and the Geneva Chamber of Commerce. He died on November 29, 1950 at the age of 88, and while he is interred in Union Dale, he also has a tomb stone next to his mother and brother’s graves at a cemetery in Trumbull Township, Ohio.


D’Orazio, Victoria L. “Memorial Proposed for Walter L. Main”

“Walter L. Main Circus,” , 2013.


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