Fire Museum opens for season with new Circus Fire display

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Manchester - posted Thu., Apr. 21, 2011
This season the Connecticut Fire Museum is displaying a collection of photographs (some rarely seen), television documentaries, and memorabilia from the infamous Hartford Circus Fire on July 6, 1944. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

It will be forever remembered as “The Day the Clowns Cried.”

The worst tragedy in the history of the American circus happened on Barbour Street in Hartford on July 6, 1944, when, during a matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, the big top circus tent caught fire. In a matter of minutes, the flames spread from the walls to the roof of the tent. Panic ensued as people dashed for the exit, and many were trampled in their attempts to escape. In the end, 167 people - mostly women and children - lost their lives, and nearly 500 more were injured.

On April 16, the Fire Museum opened for the season with a laudable historical display of the infamous fire. 

“A few years ago, we came into possession of some photos of the Hartford Circus Fire, some rarely seen, and so we had a small display,” said Wayne Crossman, president of the volunteer Connecticut Firemen’s Historical Society, which operates the museum. “This year, we had enough information to concentrate more heavily on [the event].” The display in the museum’s second floor meeting room includes photographs and research books, as well as CPTV and History Channel documentaries of the tragic fire.

“Unfortunately, the reason the fire was so devastating was because they used a mixture of paraffin diluted with gasoline to waterproof the tents, which is an incredibly flammable combination, even after the gasoline dries out,” said Crossman. One plus that came out of the tragedy, Crossman said, was that doctors were able to find new ways to treat burn victims.

Significant to the display is the 1928 American LaFrance pumper engine on loan from the Connecticut Firehouse Museum in Warehouse Point. The engine was the first piece of equipment that arrived on the scene of the circus fire. On April 30, the engine will also be used in a water flow demonstration, where it will be used outside the building to feed a 1911 water tower. The April 30 event will be an opportunity to see a 1940s-style firehouse in action.

There are several other pieces of historical equipment on display at the Fire Museum, including “The Seamstress,” a hand-pulled fire steamer once owned by the former Wheeler and Wilson sewing machine factory in Bridgeport.

“Municipal fire departments didn’t come into play until around the 1940s and 1950s,” explained Lennie Luzusky, a volunteer with the society. Before then, Luzusky said many companies, cognizant that their factories were large wooden structures, kept their own fire equipment on site and employed their own fire brigades strictly for putting out fires at their buildings and company-owned workforce housing. Such was the case with the Cheney-owned properties. 

“There was a dual functionality,” said Luzusky. “Workers on the fire brigades had their own jobs in the factories and didn’t get any extra pay for being part of the brigade. If a fire broke out, they left their jobs to put out the fire, and when it was out, they went back to their regular jobs,” he said.

Located at 230 Pine St. on the corner of Pine and Hartford Road, the Fire Museum is in the heart of the Cheney National Historic District. The Fire Museum is open April through October. Museum hours and tour information may be found on the website

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