Friday, January 31, 2014

Alpena Circus Image Identified

by Marian Matyn

I recently found an image of a circus parade in what I thought was Alpena, probably on 2nd street, in the late 1800s. The image is one of hundreds in the Fred R. Trelfa Photograph Collection, 1860-1961, which is 13.5 cubic ft. in 18 boxes. The Congregational Church is in the background of the photograph, on 2nd and Lockwood, with a unique spire that existed only from 1868 to 1888.

To learn more about the collection or to view the online finding aid, click here.

A circus friend and fan, Jim Fry, suggested I contact Alpena. What a great suggestion!

Bob Lyngos in the Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library sent me a response. He has another image of the same circus, showing a different part of the parade, also on 2nd, but passing Chisholm. The image is identified as the Sells Bros. Circus, the first one to perform in Alpena. The arrival of the circus' advertising crew, and then the circus and menagerie's performance on May 21, 1887 were described in the local press, the Alpena Weekly Argus. An estimated 3,000-4,000 people saw the circus with an estimated thousand more outside. People complained that tickets were more expensive than the advertised price. Details of how many railroad cars (36), their length (60 feet each), the amount of animals, types of performers, and amount of food and expenses, the excitement of the races, Shawnee Bill's Wild West exhibit, and the unique animals (giraffe, camels, elephants, zebras, and a hippopotamus) were detailed in the press.

The identified image from Alpena shows 2nd near Chisholm with three teams of horses each pulling wagons, the first two are clearly animal cage wagons. A third team is pulling some type of wagon with fancier sides. Three young boys are staring into the first animal cage but the image does not reveal the type of creature inside.

The railroad reached Alpena in 1886, so this was the first full year a railroad circus could visit. Other circuses followed over the years.

Thanks very much to Jim and Bob. If anyone wishes to share any other MI circus history you can contact Marian Matyn, Archivist, at