Ridgefield notables: Lewis June, Circus man

During a thunderstorm in August 1877, a railroad train was rolling from Altoona, Iowa, to Des Moines, with a mail car, three passenger cars, a sleeper and a new Barnum and Bailey advertising car, used to promote the coming appearances of the circus.

Among those on that car was Lewis June of Ridgefield, a circus executive.

Raging waters washed out a bridge. The engine and most cars plunged 20 feet into the river. Eighteen people were killed in the worst railway accident in central Iowa history.

It was a wild night for a man who’d spent his life in the wild world of circuses.

“A horrific rain was falling in torrents, accompanied by wind, lightning, and thunder,” said a New York Times account. “The crash put out the lights, and the scene of terror which ensued may be imagined. The men who were not injured (including June) went to work at once to rescue the living and wounded. They had to go a mile to a farmhouse to get axes to chop them out, but they worked heroically, and by daylight had most of the wounded rescued.

“There were many pitiful scenes and tender incidents. One mother was killed while sitting between two children, who escaped unhurt. One little girl, who had lain in the water for four hours with a heavy man lying dead beneath her body, was discovered to be breathing, and was rescued and restored, and now shows no signs of injury.”

June had proposed using special train cars to promote the arrival of the circus, and this was the first car Barnum and Bailey had commissioned.

Born in 1824 in North Salem, Lewis B. June became an animal cage driver for a circus in his early 20s. By 1851, he was a partner with Ridgefield native Aaron Turner in the June and Turner Circus, which he advertised as: “Newly equipped and greatly enlarged for the traveling campaign of 1851 ... a rare opportunity for wholesale amusement and character. A few hours thus innocently spent inevitably serves to resuscitate the unbiased mind from the cares and anxieties of a business life.”

He became part owner of other circuses until 1876 when he joined Barnum and Bailey as a co-owner, specializing in promotion.

In 1865, he built a handsome Victorian on North Salem Road, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Circus horses wintered at his farm. “Local legend reports that a bear and giraffes were also quartered here,” said historian Silvio Bedini.

By the 1880s, June had retired. An 1885 newspaper article said June “takes it easy at Ridgefield, Conn., with nothing else to do but cut the coupons off his bonds and he has to have the shears sharpened pretty often, too, at that.”

He died in 1888, aged 63.