4th in a 5-part series

Rochester has had some frightful fires in its history but the one that destroyed the winter quarters of Cole Bros. Circus on the night of Tuesday, February 20, 1940, is unmatched for its ferocity and for the destructiveness and pandemonium it created.

The fire began about 5:30 p.m. in the paint shop at the northeast corner of the main building, while circus workers were at dinner nearby. A short-circuit in an electrical switch ultimately was blamed.

Fanned by a 50 mph northeast wind, the fire quickly turned the massive main structure of 240 by 320 feet into a raging inferno and spread eastward to the animal barn, 60 by 180 feet. The buildings were destroyed in three hours. At the height of the conflagration flames soared 150 feet into the air and hot embers floated into the downtown area, prompting a few businessmen to water down the roofs of their buildings.

Wild animals trapped within the winter quarters could not be freed and 22 of them died in their cages, their shrieks of terror and pain rising into the cold night air until silenced by death. Lost were two elephants, two tigers, six lions, two leopards, a hippopotamus (boiled alive in its water tank), two zebras, two llamas, four wild sheep, a sacred cow and 100 monkeys.

The two elephants that perished in the fire had become maddened and rushed back into the flames after they were freed. "They would have killed us if we had tried to stop them," trainer Al Bailey said later.

Besides elephants, circus workers released the horses and ponies and in the panic of the moment none of these could be immediately rounded up. All of the animals instinctively headed away from the fire, toward Rochester.

Among them were a dozen or so elephants, not maddened as were those that went back into the burning buildings, but frightened, disoriented and frantic to find safety. They were not intent on purposely harming people, but citizens did not know that when they encountered these free-roaming, five-ton beasts.

Tales of elephant appearances before their handlers could catch up to them endure in Rochester's folklore.

There was, for example, the surprise of my mother who, looking out the back window of our house on East Sixth Street, saw an elephant walking westward on the lawn. "Charles!" she shouted, calling my father. "Come here and get rid of this!" Happily for him, the elephant kept walking and departed on its own.

For a curious six-year-old, Jim Heyde, the night could have been tragic. He was emerging onto Main Street from the alley next to today's Alejandra's restaurant, unaware of an elephant approaching behind him. Ben Mullican, a well-known local personality, happened to be passing by, saw the danger, grabbed Jim and carried him out of the way. The elephant crossed Main and continued westward in the alley past Baileys' Hardware. Jim decided he'd had enough excitement and headed home in a hurry.

For Wallace (Bus) Wert, elephants just kept coming that night. While cutting meat at the Babcock Market on East Ninth Street he looked up to see two elephants standing on the sidewalk staring into the window. Trainers came and led them away. After he went home to supper soon afterward, another elephant went past the window opposite his chair.

Curiosity also scared Carl Quick, a stockbuyer who was driving toward the fire on Lucas Street. An elephant suddenly appeared and collided with his car. Neither Carl nor the animal were damaged, the auto only slightly.

Walter (Bud) Meader was walking leisurely downtown on the north side when an elephant lurched out of an alley and barely missed knocking him down.

Meader broke into a 100-yard dash for the business district. Automobile dealer L.V. Louderback heard a noise and thought his gas furnace had exploded at his home on North Pontiac Street. He looked out to discover that an elephant had bumped the house and was in the act of carrying off his clothesline.

Francis Sanders, 13, was biking home from watching the fire when on Madison Street near Eighth an elephant came running down the alley from the west, heading right at him. A circus worker with an elephant hook was running behind and yelled at Francis to stop and not move. Although badly frightened, he did just that and the elephant was hooked and led away past the stunned boy.

Horses and ponies freed from the blaze were rounded up by circus workers and helpful farmers. One pony, running with 10 others, was struck by a car at the south end of the city and injured so badly it had to be destroyed.

My personal involvement in all of this was to arrive at the fire site past its peak, inspecting the scene from atop a flatcar on the railroad siding. It was a terrifyingly unforgettable sight, just as was my tour of the ruins the following day.

This, then, was the disastrous end of Cole Bros. Circus in Rochester, but not quite the end of Cole Bros. Adkins and Terrell vowed to rebound in 1940. A show was put together with Ken Maynard again as a featured attraction.

It opened in Rochester as usual, on May 3, 1940, and went on the road. Then on June 20 in Gardner, Mass., Adkins died of a heart attack at age 54. His family blamed the stress of the fire and subsequent restoration efforts.

Terrell bought his partner's interest and later took the circus to winter quarters in Louisville, Ky. He managed to keep a small Cole show on the road off and on until 1947 when he sold it and retired, dying at age 72 in 1954.

Today there still is a Cole Bros-Clyde Beatty Circus. It appears under canvas, is based at DeLand, Fla., and gives three-ring performances mainly in the East.

For many of us in Rochester, though, there is but one Cole Bros.-Clyde Beatty Circus and its delightful stay here is fixed in our memories. Some descriptions of that will be recounted next week to complete this five-ring series of circus columns.

Published May 7, 2002