‘The Circus Ship’ is Based on the Heartbreaking True Story of a Ship That Sunk Off Vinalhaven, Maine
I was recently made aware of the children's book, The Circus Ship by, Chris Van Dusen. All I knew was that it was about a ship carrying a circus that ended up in Maine, and I thought it was just a delightful tale of fiction, which it largely is, but it has roots in a very true and tragic story.
According to Maine Today, the ship was a steamboat called Royal Tar. Like in the storybook, the ship was carrying a traveling circus complete with an elephant, two camels, and 93 human passengers in October of 1836.
During Royal Tar's travels from New Brunswick to Portland, the winds were causing a problem for the ship but they pushed on, Maine Today stated.
That is until they got to the Vinalhaven area and had to anchor because the boiler's water was too low, according to the article, and shortly thereafter a fire broke out in the furnace and then it was discovered that the fire had spread to the middle of the deck. It was too much for the crew to extinguish, let alone maintain, especially since the winds fanned the flames which then destroyed their firefighting equipment.
Much like with the Titanic, the ship was equipped with lifeboats, just not enough for the 93 passengers. In fact, there was only enough for a third of them and certainly not enough room for the circus animals, according to Maine Today.
Apparently they would have had the necessary number of lifeboats, had they not removed two in favor of making room for animal cages, according to the New England Historical Society.
The fate of the passengers and animals was not good. In fact, very much the opposite of The Circus Ship.
Only two horses were able to make it to shore, according to Maine Today, and the elephant jumped ship and ended up landing on some passengers on makeshift rafts, drowning them before the elephant then drowned. It's bizarre to think about, there being the remains of an elephant off the Maine coast.
Approximately 40 passengers were able to squeeze on to one of the lifeboats, according to the New England Historical Society. Maine Today reported that the other lifeboat had been taken by 16 men who left everyone else behind.
There were 32 human casualties total including 10 children, the New England Historical Society reported.
So, next time you're reading The Circus Ship to your kids, enjoying a story of shipwrecked circus animals finding their way around Maine, good luck keeping the reminder of this true and tragic story at bay.