The Great Train Wreck of 1877 Monument
Twisted metal, shattered wood, and circus tickets blowing in the breeze…
On the afternoon of August 29th, 1877, thousands descended on Altoona to see the aftermath of that morning’s train wreck. Word had traveled lightning-fast across the Des Moines Metro; people were saying this was the greatest rail accident the area had ever seen—and in a pre-Twitter era, the only way to see it was with your own two eyes.

The first unusual things these voyeurs found were posters advertising the upcoming Barnum “Greatest Show on Earth”, scheduled for September 9th in Des Moines. Thousands of these brightly colored advertisements were strewn across the farm fields, dirt roads and open country, advertising elephants that could stand on one leg and monkeys that could juggle. There were also nearly 2,000 admission tickets blowing in the breeze, each one worth a whopping 50 cents.

Original 1877 Iowa Train Wreck Stereoview, CRI & P Railroad, Four Mile Creek

What they found at the crash site was entirely different, but no less bizarre. There was the Barnum train car, destroyed beyond recognition, along with the remains of two coaches, a sleeper, and mall and express cars —a mass of twisted metal and shattered wood strewn across the banks of the creek.
Early that morning, a storm had flooded the area, transforming the usually placid Little Four Mile Creek into a torrent that ripped out the supports anchoring a bridge. When the train passed over the creek, the bridge gave way, sending the cars and their passengers plummeting into the dark water below.
Dr. F. E. English, the first mayor of Altoona (elected in 1876), was the first doctor on the scene. While he and other physicians helped save dozens of lives, 17 died that morning and another three passed soon after, making that morning’s incident the deadliest train accident in the region’s history. Later, the community built a monument to the Great Train Wreck of 1877, which you can visit today.

As for the circus? Well, as the saying goes, the show must go on. Despite the tragedy, P.T. Barnum still held his circus on September 9th, 1877, in Des Moines. Unfortunately for those who found a stray ticket near the crash site, Barnum reprinted that evening’s tickets in a different color.

Landmark Address:

One mile from 8th Street SW & 17th Avenue SW

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