Strates Shows may expand tour schedule

When Ringling Bros. quits touring by train in May, Strates will be the last rail-moved carnival or circus in the U.S.
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CSX Transportation SD60M No. 8775 leads the James E. Strates Shows carnival train P-922 eastbound on the Philadelphia Subdivision through Elk Mills, Md. in May 2016.
Michael S. Murray
ORLANDO, Fla. — With the circus world reeling with the announcement that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is shutting down, carnival operator Strates Shows plans to not only continue to move its equipment by rail, but is looking for expansion opportunities. The Orlando-based carnival plays about two dozen dates each season in seven eastern states from Florida as far north as New York State and Vermont.

Strates Shows dates to 1923. That year James E. Strates, a Greek immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1909, acquired New York’s Southern Tier Shows. In 1932, he changed its name to James E. Strates Shows. By 1934, he had purchased the shows first five flatcars along with 17 trucks to carry his equipment. From that season on, Strates purchased flatcars from the Warren Tank Car Company each year. By 1938 he had 25 cars and continued to add to the fleet until he had 40 cars. In 1935, he purchased a private car once owned by millionaire oilman Harry Sinclair. Named Elizabeth for his daughter, the car had five staterooms, an observation room, butler’s pantry, and bathroom with shower.

Strates continued to build and manage the carnival until his death in 1959 when his son, E. James Strates, assumed responsibility for the carnival. Now licensed under Strates Shows Inc., the Strates family continues to own and operate the business.

“We’re in shock just as everyone else is about what’s happened to Ringling Brothers,” says Dan Wallace, the company’s controller and transportation coordinator. “We have a long, cordial relationship with Ringling, in fact the Ringling trains in the past when they played Orlando have occasionally stayed on our siding.”

When the SunRail commuter service was under construction, access to some of Ringling’s tracks were cut off, so they used Strates tracks until construction was finished.

“That time they spent here really solidified the bonds between a lot of Strates employees and Ringling employees, so we are as sad as the Ringlings about the shut down,” Wallace said.

Wallace manages the rail operation for Strates. He says the show loads up its equipment in late March or early April in Orlando, and heads north to New York State via CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern. After playing several different venues in New York during May, June, and July, the train heads to Essex Junction, Vt. From Vermont, the train begins a swing back down the East Coast, playing in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia before returning to Orlando in November.

Wallace says the last few years the company has taken 42 flatcars on the road. One car is equipped with a ramp, so equipment – rides, concessions, trucks, and equipment can be driven on or off. A designated trainmaster and crew can load or unload the train in less than 18 hours.

Traveling with the show are some 400 employees and families who operate the rides, games and concessions. But what you won’t see on the Strates Shows train any longer are passenger cars. About three years ago, one of Strates railroad partners increased the amount it required for liability for handling the passenger cars, and the company found that the cost of insurance for the increase was cost-prohibitive. By dropping the passenger cars, Strates could afford to keep the rest of the train in operation. Today personnel use their own vehicles or company-owned buses to travel to each venue, where they stay in bunkhouses. The passenger cars remain in Orlando, and are sometimes used by staff as dormitories during the winter.

Depending on the locale, the train may not move to every venue.

“Right now we take the train to Middletown, N.Y.,” Wallace says. “We park the train in Middletown, and use the fairgrounds there as a jumping off point. We play spots in southern New York and New Jersey and Long Island using Middletown as a kind of staging area.”

Occasionally there will be spots that don’t have rail access. In those cases, the equipment moves over the road to a venue, and the train may move with several cars empty since the equipment is in use. But it eventually it “catches up” with the train.

From Middletown, the train moves to the Erie County (N.Y.) Fairgrounds in Hamburg, N.Y. Hamburg is the oldest stop on Strates circuit where it has operated the midway since 1924, just after the company’s inception. Like when the circus came to town years ago, the arrival of the Strates Shows train in Hamburg is a big deal.

“We love taking the train there,” says Wallace. “When it arrives in Hamburg, the town declares it ‘Erie County Fair Train Day.’ They have a big parade and we get hundreds of people at the station to watch the train arrive and unload.”

In 2016, as the train arrived at the former Erie Railroad depot, it was greeted by members of the Pepsi-Cola Erie County Fair Marching Band, and 500 limited edition buttons featuring a vintage, 1960s Strates Shows logo and the words “Train Day 2016” were distributed.

As far as any Ringling Brothers equipment being acquired by Strates, Wallace says it would be “premature” and there have not yet been any discussions about it.

“We continue to be committed to rail,” says Wallace. “It’s still a very effective way to move our equipment. In fact we are in discussions right now with R.J. Corman’s Carolina lines about taking the train into Myrtle Beach (S.C.), which would be a little expansion of our route. We’re also looking at other locations in the Northeast to take the train.”

So while the “Greatest Show On Earth” is folding its tent, Strates Shows will carry on the tradition of moving the show by rail.

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