The Floating Circus

by Jonathan Wright
Research courtesy of the Peoria Public Library Local History Collection

In the mid-1800s, the city was abuzz when the circus came to town.

Above, artwork from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, Feb. 19, 1853

Today’s world offers no shortage of entertainment options, with online content available on demand 24/7—but there’s something about live performance that cannot be replicated on a screen. In the days before radio, film and television, live entertainment was the only kind of entertainment. Peoria, of course, is known for its turn-of-the-century vaudeville scene, but live entertainment did not start with vaudeville. The first known theatrical performance in Peoria dates to 1838—about the same time, a new form of American entertainment was on the rise.

Hungry for the Circus
“The urban centers of the Middle West [were] amusement-hungry during the two decades preceding the Civil War,” writes Philip Graham in Showboats: The History of an American Institution. “Their favorite amusement was the circus, with its multiple attractions of clowns, acrobatics, minstrelsy, wild animals, equestrian acts, curious freaks and wonders, feats of magic and pseudo-science, and stirring music.”

In the mid-1800s, dozens of traveling circuses arrived in Peoria—years before the first visits of P.T. Barnum (in 1872) and the Ringling brothers (in 1885). They came by wagon, steamboat and railroad: Franconi's Colossal Hippodrome, Orton's Badger Circus, L.B. Lent's Mammoth Circus, S.P. Stickney's Circus, and so on…

The river afforded easy transportation, so exhibiting on circus boats (or “showboats”) became popular; with no unloading or setup time, they were ready to please the crowd as soon as they tied to shore. Of all the circus boats traversing the Mississippi and Ohio River systems, the largest was Spalding and Rogers' Floating Circus Palace—200 feet long, 35 feet wide—which docked in Peoria on at least four occasions between 1853 and 1858.

The Aquatic Amphitheatre
It was billed as "the most elegant and comfortable amphitheatre in the world… surpassing all American theatres in spaciousness, sumptuousness and comfort.” Surrounding its arena, the main deck included 1,000 cane-seat armchairs; the first gallery, another 1,500 cushioned settees; and a second gallery had seating for another 900—a total capacity of 3,400, not counting the standing room outside the windows, which sold for half-price.

The Floating Circus Palace featured a wide range of performers: acrobats and tightrope walkers; clowns and comedians; singers and actors; and even a 40-horse equestrian act. Music was ubiquitous, courtesy of a large pipe organ, 12-piece brass band and a calliope proclaiming its arrival for miles and miles inland. All this entertainment, for just 50 cents or a quarter per show.

Just off the main arena, a museum showcased over 100,000 "curiosities and wonders”—from stuffed tigers and wax figures to sideshows like the “Invisible Lady Act”—alongside dressing rooms and horse stalls. Nearly 100 people lived and worked on board; the boat even printed its own daily newspaper.

A Novel Act
In September 1857, the Floating Circus Palace docked at the foot of Main Street, holding performances concurrent with the Illinois State Fair. It was only one of a dozen steamers docked in Peoria that week—where “the streets were thronged with visitors”—and it boasted of “three circuses in one” (including the Great Monkey Circus and Burlesque Dramatic Troupe, featuring acts by monkeys, dogs and goats). According to a review in the Peoria Daily Transcript: "The performance was varied, novel and exciting—in a word, superior to any such exhibition we ever before witnessed, East, West, South or North."

The Floating Circus Palace continued operations until 1862, when it was seized by the Confederacy after a performance in New Orleans, and the circus troupe was ordered to leave the South. a&s

Learn more about "The Circus in Central Illinois" on the P.S. Blog!

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