Edinboro Alumni Issue: Thomas Dillon

Friday, October 13th, 2017 at 9:10 PM
Edinboro Alumni Issue: Thomas Dillon by Shayma Musa
Contributed Photo.

Harsh tropical winds had just rocked the tiny resort island of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua when Thomas Dillon begins his story. His hotel is a mere minutes away from the bay, where the night before, four boats were turned, like a toddler’s bath toys, into the sea along with anyone on them. A train man, the violence of the sea is, unfamiliar, if not unsettling to him. 

The story distracts him.

“The correct way to address people in the circus is showfolk,” Dillon states firmly, early on in the interview. 

Dillon graduated from Edinboro University in 1975. Like many college graduates, he ended up doing something completely out of the bounds of the major he received at the university (psychology), instead working in the mechanical department of the Penn Central and Conrail railroad companies. 

“I worked there (the rail companies) until 1985 when the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey came to town. I did some work for the red unit train and they made me an offer. A few months later, I sent them a resume, they hired me and flew me to Sarasota, Florida, and the rest is history,” Dillon said. 

He speaks of the Ringling Bros., a circus company that for 146 years entertained audiences all over the country, and in its heyday, the world, casually. He worked for the company for 30 years as director of transportation after all, rigging and maintaining trains that snaked through all the major veins of America. 

“I traveled over 300,000 miles through the 48 contiguous states and Mexico,” Dillon explained. “I lived in 1/3 of a train car for 10 years. It was great.” 

He continued: “I was responsible for the safety and security of 250 people from all around the world, [and] that meant maintaining the train to the federal railroad administration standards, maintaining generators for electricity and even fixing leaky faucets. Once or twice a week I would load and reload the train. We would try to have the train loaded and on the road 6-8 hours after the show.”  

In its early days, the Ringling Bros. circus traveled the country in flashy wagons that carried giant “tops,” or big tents, and all the gear and supplies needed to haul the troupe around. 

In 1872, however, P.T. Barnum became one of the first circus masters to phase the traveling style from wagons to train. 

Since then, until its closing early this year, the circus has used trains to transport the show. 

“The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey had two circus trains, the red unit and the blue unit. Each train was about a mile long when the circus closed in 2017. Every city was different, and we all enjoyed exploring,” Dillon said. 

However, like many jobs, there are the downfalls, such as “staying awake for long train runs,” said Dillon when asked about the hardest part of his job. 

“It (the scenery) was all beautiful, but my favorite has to be crossing the Rocky Mountains by train.” 

The trains are loud. Painted in bright reds and yellows, with the occasional splash of blue, the cars of the train are designed to let cities know they’re in town. Crowds of curious city citizens used to crowd the train looking for a glimpse of a show they knew would captivate them and their families. Towards the end of the circus’s run though, those happy crowds became angry protesters carrying signs claiming animal abuse, among other allegations. 

“I made sure the animals, elephants, tigers, horses and other exotic animals were loaded on safely,” Dillon said, speaking about the animal rights controversy that surrounded the circus in its last years. “Our animals were loved and received the finest care and food 24 hours a day.” 

The power is down as Hurricane Nate rollicks through the island of San Juan del Sur, and Dillon’s story remains unfinished. A day later, he resumes contact. 

“It’s a sad day in San Juan del Sur,” Dillon said, beginning the email and the rest of his story. “Even though I retired in 2016, I was given permission to ride the last Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train from Uniondale, New York, to Tampa, Florida in May of 2017. I was the last person off the last ever circus train,” Dillon said. 

“It was very sad (when the circus closed). Many of my friends lost their jobs. Historically, we have lost a slice of Americana — 146 years of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. I was proud to be a part of it for 30 years.” 

The trainmaster of nearly two miles of clanging metal and iron leads a quiet life since his retirement; “golf” and “traveling” are his leisure activities.

Shayma Musa is the copy editor for The Spectator.

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