Happyland — Winnipeg’s “mammoth amusement park” scene of elephant stampede

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

The evening of August 10, 1907, would not be a happy time in Happyland. At Happyland, Ringling Brothers’ “Greatest Show on Earth,” was wrapping up its closing performance of a two-day appearance in the city. At first no one was aware of the storm building up southeast of Winnipeg, but then the canvas of the big-top began to rise and fall as the wind outside picked up momentum. Every seat under the big-top was filled as Hurricane-force winds began to batter Winnipeg, taking out hydro poles and plunging the city into darkness. 

As sheet lightning lit up  the nighttime sky, staff hurriedly made preparations to pack up animals, tents and equipment for a rendez vous with a midnight train to take the circus to its next engagement.

The men in charge of the menagerie became aware their charges were ill-at-ease as the intensity of wind, rain and lightning increased. Some 15 elephants  (the number related varies from 12 to 15) on the “bull line” began to strain on the posts where the animals were tethered. Trainers tried to soothe the beasts, but tents flaps whipped by the wind terrified the massive creatures, which trumpeted wildly while swinging their trunks back and forth. Adding to the mounting confusion, the larger elephants, unshackled to move the heavy wagons assigned to carry the circus’ equipment, became increasingly agitated and unmanageable.

The crowd watching the performance only became alarmed once the roars of lions and tigers pierced the air. At this stage, the big-top was emptying of performers and spectators, who feared for their own safety.

A mighty clap of thunder and the falling of a large section of canvas unhinged the beasts, some of which broke free from their bonds, while some elephants dragged heavy poles used to limit their movement.

The circus band played on in an attempt to soothe man and beast. The playing calmed people and 

the majority of animals, but the 

elephants were not as easily swayed. Helpless trainers watched as some 

of the beasts fled into the night, prompting staff to pursue the rogue beasts into the darkness.

The animal break-out resulted in a hurried call to the police and fire departments for help in the rounding up the escapees. 

As suddenly as the storm appeared, it vanished and moonlight broke the darkness. What the moonlight revealed was electric wires dancing on poles, uprooted trees across roads and homes, buildings partially destroyed, the grounds at Happyland knee-deep in water and sundry damage throughout the area.

Following the confusion of the storm, it was discovered that one lion and numerous elephants had made good their escape.

An August 31, 1940, Winnipeg Evening Tribune article, by Col. G.C. Porter, retold the events of 1907 using eyewitness accounts. Porter wrote that Richard “Dick” D. Waugh’s hired man was awoken in the early morning hours by the family dog’s incessant barking. According to the article, an enormous brown dog was trying to join the Waugh dog in its kennel.

“The man gave him a kick and was greeted with a roar that could be heard all over the neighbourhood. Taking a closer look he saw the head of a fine lion with toothless gums snarling at him.”

He rushed into the house on Raglan Road at the corner of Portage Avenue to tell Waugh there was lion in the yard. In disbelief, the future mayor of Winnipeg went to the back door and “was horrified to find the object of his workman’s excitement lying calmly on the steps.”

Waugh phoned Winnipeg Police Chief John McRae, who then mustered a squad of armed officers to confront the “King of the Beasts.” While en route, the lion’s keeper showed up at the Waugh home and “grabbing Leo by by his shaggy mane returned him to Happyland.” It turned out the lion was virtually harmless as it was toothless.

Porter said it wasn’t until the next morning when Waugh read about the lion’s escape in the newspaper that he realized his eyes had not deceived him.

“Further south on Raglan Road at the riverbank the evening of the storm, Tommy Keen, brother of Billy, the famous Victoria hockey team member (the Vics won Stanley Cups in 1896 and 1901), received a thrill he has not forgot to this day.”

Apparently, it was Keen who suggested to Porter that the events of August 1907 be retold in the newspaper.

According to Porter, August 10 had been a red-letter day in Keen’s life. “That morning he had received his promotion from (operating) a yard engine on the old Manitoba Northern to (engineer of) a road engine which he was to take out for the first time next morning.”

In the mood to share his good 

fortune, Keen went over to his 

girlfriend’s house near the riverbank. He intended to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. In Keen’s mind, nothing could disturb the elation he was experiencing.

Once her parents gave their consent, the young couple retired to the verandah. “There, billing and cooing, they were suddenly interrupted. An enormous snake-like object, the size of a stovepipe, slowly penetrated the screen of Virginia creeper. It swung to and fro over the heads of the lovers and suddenly descended around Tommy’s  neck in a gentle loop.

“The yell that followed caused the halter-like grip to tighten and the newly-appointed engineer was suddenly lifted out of his chair and swung loosely in mid-air.” When his young lady screamed out, the elephant dropped Keen. The elephant’s trunk tore out part of the portico when it was withdrawn, shaking the entire cottage. The “elephant lurched off into the darkness, trumpeting fiercely.”

“I’ve been pulling fast trains on American railroads for nearly thirty-two years,” Keen laughingly told Porter. “In that time I believe I have had my share of panicky adventures but nothing approaching the night when the runaway elephant got a half-nelson on me. I have seen the story printed many times ... and have been asked by many reporters just how it feels to be hugged by an elephant’s trunk. I haven’t got the scars to prove that narrow escape I had that night but if I live a thousand years I’ll not forget the sensation.”

The story did have a happy ending, as a few weeks later Keen married his sweetheart.

Porter reported the last of the elephants were rounded up when two elephants were found 24 hours later in Headingly. The two pachyderms were found at the edge of the Assiniboine squirting water through their trunks over the heads of children pelting the elephants with mud.

Property claims resulting from the damage wrought by the rampaging elephants were settled out-of-court. According to Porter, although the money paid by the circus was not revealed, “it was unquestionably very high.”

Amazingly, it was not the only time circus animals broke free from their restraints and freely roamed Winnipeg’s streets.

The second incident on the evening of July 29, 1913, was preceded by ominous clouds forming to the north. As the witching hour approached, the heavens opened up releasing torrential rain, while deafening thunder claps shocked eardrums and brilliant flashes of lightning shot across the sky.

Inside the Happyland amusement park, five elephants of the Sells-Floto Circus became agitated by the claps of thunder and flashes of lightning — easily seen through the canvas tent which began to flap eerily as the storm’s wind intensified. The skittish beasts, chained to pegs within the tent, couldn’t take any more of Mother Nature's fury and broke free from their flimsy bonds.

“In their flight they took two courses,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on July 30, 1913, “some going through the side of the manager’s tent, thereby freeing a number of horses, and some going through towards the big entrance. The iron bars regulating the incoming people went down before them like matchwood. Next they encountered the circus wagon, over turning it and breaking one of its wheels.”

Armed with pitchforks and other weapons, circus employees tried to keep the elephants from stampeding onto the street. But the employees had difficulty making out the shapes of the massive beasts. The elephants’ grey skin at times blended in with the darkness and only became partially visible with a distorted strobe-like effect as each bolt of lightning flashed across the sky.

(Next week: Part 2)