09 October 2012

The Great American Water Shows Aka The Great American Water Circus

The Great American Water Shows
The Great American Water Circus

compiled by Teresa Martin Klaiber Oct. 2012


The circus is always full of spectacles that leave us wide eyed and breathless.  But one of the most amazing shows winter quartered, for a few years, just across the river in Ironton, Lawrence County, Ohio from 1902 until about 1905.

The Great American Water Circus was a floating show.  The show travelled along the Ohio River going up the Alleghany River [at least one trip] and along the Mississippi.  Sometime between the 1903 and 1904 season it changed the name from the Great American Water Circus to the Great American Water Shows.[i]

 The show was described as two or three barges bound together with a large tent that covered the entire length, depending on what news articles are read.   Several advance ads stated that the tent was 60x175 feet.   Still a lot of canvas over barges tied together in any formation. The tent was touted to seat 2000 people.  At least one article I read said that it seated about 1000.  The show cost adults 25 cents and children under eight 15 cents.  

Most newspaper articles reference it as a two ring circus. According to descriptions the show had 14 parade wagons and 40 horses[ii]  as well as a dog show at one point.  The show had approximately forty-two people.[iii]
I found a grainy photograph of the show docked at Marietta, Ohio in the December 1958 issue of Bandwagon.  The photograph is the property of the Circus Historical Society.  The best quality photograph is the property of the Public Library of Cincinnati with their wonderful river collection.  But I truly got excited when I found that they have a picture of the inside of the tent showing seating, horses and  pony.  I am left wondering if perhaps that is the owner in the foreground with a smoke in his mouth.  The library notes that it is from the {Frederick} Way Collection.

William P. Newman was the mastermind and owner of this floating circus.  He was born in Ironton, Lawrence County, Ohio 27 March 1872[iv], the son of Valentine [born Germany] and Mary [born Massachusetts].  He was one of at least seven children.  Valentine Newman was a lumber merchant and by the time William was fourteen he left home and tried his hand at several jobs.  He married 25 November 1896 Carrie Haller and the family can be found renting in Columbus, Franklin County, Ohio in the 1900 census.  His occupation at this time is listed as superintendent.  But, it does not clarify what he is supervising.   

There were many show boats plying the waters of the Ohio that stopped in Portsmouth, Ironton and Ashland.  They had theatrical stage shows and music. How Newman visualized and created this unique circus and convinced performers to bring their animals onboard is a wonder.

The overhead for a show of this type must have been high.  Besides barges, a steamboat was required to push all of the trappings up and down the waterways. In 1903 the Cricket was one of the boats utilized.  The first towboat that this writer found mention of being utilized for the show was the J.C. Reynolds in July 1902 where it began its journey from Liverpool, Ohio.[v]  In 1904 the Katie Mc brought the show into Indiana.  River news was reported in detail by newspaper produced in Brookville, Indiana called The Sun.  There is no doubt that the show struggled.  In 1904 “Col. Newman” talked with the owner of the Floating Palace while in Evansville.  Rumors were circulating that the show was then out of business but the news  corrected the rumor stating the show was reorganizing and had even bought a calliope.[vi]

Newman’s wife was the cashier for the show.  R. E. Stroup resigned his position, as advertising manager, with the Portsmouth Times in April 1903[vii] to become Great American Water Circus advance man.  Stroup had only held the position with the paper for a month.  The Portsmouth Times had announced his taking a position with them after leaving the “Ironton newspapers.”[viii]

The show left winter quarters and usually made the next appearance at Ashland then Catlettsburg if heading up river.

Newman’s father Valentine died 5 November 1909 and was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Ironton.[ix] By 1910 the Newman’s had moved back to Bucyrus, Crawford County, Ohio.  They resided with Carrie’s parents Jacob and Mary [nee Schaffer] Haller on Walnut Street.  William P. gave his occupation as “none.”  Jacob Haller was an engineer at the county courthouse at this time.  Jacob Haller was originally a tanner, born in Lycoming County, PA.[x]

By 1920 The Newman’s had their own place and W. P. gave his occupation as manager of a bakery.  In 1913 they had a daughter named Mary.  By 1940, still living in Bucyrus, William gives his occupation as a salesman of step ladders.  

Census records can be a bit deceiving, leaving huge gaps in a person’s life.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave more information about his life in entertainment in his obituary 12 June 1950.  The article stated that he was one of Bucyrus first motion picture theater owners.  It went on to describe a partnership in billboard advertising for many years.  Besides his wife, and only daughter [Mrs.  Robert W. Ferguson],  a brother, Louis also resided in Crawford County.

Carrie, widowed, lived until her death, 29 January 1967, in a care facility in Bucyrus, Crawford County, Ohio.

[i] Breckenridge News, Cloverport, KY, 29 June 1904
[ii] Rain, D.A. The Water Book. A Compendium of Facts and Fables 1993
[iii] Memoirs of the Lower Ohio Valley, Vol. 1, page 135
[iv] Ohio, Lawrence County Birth Records
[v] Evening Bulletin, Maysville, Ohio July 18 1902
[vi] Breckenridge News, Cloverport, KY 13 July 1904
[vii] Ironton Register, Ironton, Ohio 3 April 1903
[viii] Portsmouth Times, Portsmouth, OH 7 Mar 1903
[x] History of Crawford County, Ohio. Baskin and Battey, 1881. PP 749.