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Looking Back: The Great Elephant Escape


John Kinnear

Nov 29, 2023

Of all the collective nouns you may have heard, like: a parliament of owls or a murder of crows; I’m bettin’ there is one you haven’t come across and that would be:”a profusion of pachyderms”.

Of all the collective nouns you may have heard, like: a parliament of owls or a murder of crows; I’m bettin’ there is one you haven’t come across and that would be:”a profusion of pachyderms”. This group term fits perfectly when used to describe an infamous incident that happened back in the summer of 1926 in Cranbrook, BC. That is when the famous Sells-Floto Circus came to town and 14 of its edgy gray giants caused a riot in the countryside.

The Sells-Floto was a massive circus production that had been travelling across the U.S. and Canada by rail for many years back then. It is nothing short of astonishing to comprehend that this huge circus would roll into a town or city at 5 am, unload and set up the big circus tent and related areas and hold an afternoon matinee and evening show.  Then it would tear down that night, load up, and be in the next location for the next day.

Apparently the Sells-Floto had had problems with their elephant troupe in Edmonton prior to arriving in Cranbrook. Unloading on August 2nd of that year, in the capital city, something spooked them and the whole dam works headed down Jasper Avenue. They were quickly rounded up after tearing up the place and it seems this was to be a forerunner of more troublesome things to come.

The Blairmore Enterprise reported on August 5th that the same Sells-Floto show was set up that day as part of the Blairmore Elks Carnival. A little digging revealed a picture of elephants marching down main street Blairmore, a pre-event tradition. The very next day the whole kit and caboodle showed up in Cranbrook. The logistics of this setup and tear down procedure leaves me stunned.

Perhaps it was the high altitude or smoke from forest fires in the area or even some say a barking dog that triggered that famous stampede that day in Cranbrook. What ever it was, it spooked those temperamental tuskers as they were being unloaded from their boxcars and thus began the Great Elephant Hunt.

The resultant melee paints a marvelous mental image.  Fourteen wild eyed, trumpeting elephants charging down Cranbrook’s streets in every direction, ears wide and flapping and trunks erect. This has all the makings of a Disney movie for sure.

Seven of those perturbed pachyderms were rounded up in short order, having found the Cranbrook cemetery a nice quiet place to hang out. The rest scattered and reports came in hours later about giant footprints as far away as Yahk. No doubt the CPR right-of-way made a pretty good highway for some of the fugitives. CPR issued probably one of their most unusual telegrams ever back then. The message read: “All trains East. Keep lookout for elephants on track; advise if sighted from first telegraph office giving location”.

While the elephant’s handlers and white bystanders were relatively unscathed by the initial breakout, some First Nation’s types were not so lucky. A Ktunaxa (Kootenay Indian) man named Abel was summarily swept from his horse by a runaway elephant that charged him from a thicket. I wonder if Abel’s grandchildren would ever believe his wild tale of an elephant encounter years later?

Next on Dumbo’s Ktunaxa hit list was a 60-year-old named Mary Janet who was collecting apples in a little orchard. On looking up from her work she discovered that the elephant cows Bessie and Virginia and the bull Cicero were placidly watching her. I have no doubt that Mary Janet had never seen nor ever imagined such a creature existed.

Terrified, she scrambled up the apple tree where she sat and watched with, no doubt, unbelieving eyes, as that hungry trio casually munched on apples on the ground. After a while it occurred to Mary Janet to toss apples further and further away from the tree, thus leading the trio far enough away from her to allow her to climb down. Mary promptly beat a hasty retreat to her nearest neighbor, one Charly Sunrise.

Charly wasn’t home and as it turns out was involved in a little pachydermal adventure of his own. Having spotted some enormous, odd shaped tracks and a wide swathe of torn up bush, he had decided to follow, albeit nervously, the mangled trail. At some point he looked behind him only to find a cold and hungry elephant cow named Tillie charging him full bore, bugling in fury and quite enraged. A little research tells me that elephants can reach 28 mph so it should not be surprising, that despite Charly’s terrified dash, Tillie closed the gap between them rapidly. A quickly exhausted Charly came across a small ravine in a clearing that was spanned by a rickety footbridge. He dashed across it and collapsed on the other side, too exhausted to run anymore. Tillie apparently came to a halt at the bridge and gingerly tested it with her foot.  Realizing it wouldn’t hold her she charged down one side of the ravine and up the other only to find Charly had moved back onto the footbridge. She apparently tested it again and with an ear splitting scream charged back across the ravine once more.

This comical sparring match continued for some time until finally Tillie bellowed in anger and roared off into the trees. Charly then beat it into town where he told his wild story to the trainers and heard about Mary Janet’s encounter.  Virginia, Bessie and Cicero were found by the trainers still munching Mary’s apples and quietly rounded up.

Next up was an incident with Charlie Buckbone who briefly experienced Tillie’s wrath. She apparently turned on his horse and literally ripped the shirt from his back with her trunk. Eventually Tillie and another cow named Frieda were later coaxed into their boxcars by an imported expert elephant trainer by the name of “Cheerful Gardner”.

That left only two recalcitrant pachyderms to be found; Charlie Ed and Myrtle. There was one more tusker attack on the Kootenay people before this debacle finally ended. It involved Salmon Jack and his family who were out picking raspberries. Their encounter with a starving elephant caused them to flee, raspberry baskets in hand, to their cabin. There they huddled in a corner whilst that hungry giant shouldered their cabin, rocking it every which way to get in at the berries. Eventually the elephant reached in a broken window and got a full force whack with an iron poker on its trunk whereupon it screamed and thundered off into the bush.

Myrtle was eventually found at the base of Moyie Mountain but was a physical wreck. All her toenails were worn off, her knees were badly bruised and she had two or three bullet wounds in her hip from panicked Ktunaxa. She was given a shot of morphine but died shortly after, having contracted pneumonia. Charlie Ed, Sells-Floto’s most prized bull, was finally located at Smith Lake and recaptured with hunks of bread.

During the 6-week adventure the loss of Myrtle, cancelled bookings and the costs of compensation and rewards had cost the circus owner over $50,000. Despite that they graciously allowed Charlie Ed to stay on in Cranbrook for the last three days of their Fall Fair. Charlie Ed was renamed Cranbrook Ed in a ceremony later that week by Mayor Roberts.

To christen Ed, the mayor poured a bottle of champagne over his head which he apparently endured gracefully. A bouquet of flowers that was to be presented at that time to Marie Patterson, the winner of an auto club race, was seized by Ed.  He passed them by his mouth as if to eat them and then waved them about with his trunk and then, “much to the surprise and delight of those present, he dropped them at the feet of the honored young lady.”  He was then treated to a tray of delicacies at the Victoria Café and off he went out of town on the noon train.

It is well known that this was a terrible life for these elephants and thankfully their use in circuses is for the most part ended. Charlie (Cranbrook) Ed was retired in 1934 after enduring another 8 years of those awful road trips, chained to the inside of a box car for hours on end.

He was cast in a couple movies after retiring and eventually wound up in the San Francisco Zoo. There, in 1936, he finally had had enough and gored his keeper to death. Charlie was brutally executed by a firing squad of policeman, while being held by his four legs with ropes. Charlie Ed was 27 years old.

Authors Note: Cranbrook erected a statue to Charlie (Cranbrook) Ed some years back and this year they held an arts and music festival named Ed Fest

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