The Main Event
The foreign press had the circus "landing at the edge of great virgin forests, jungle-like stretches of green... Away they went into the deep evergreen woods." (Statesville, North Carolina Landmark, July 11, 1927). Even the Cranbrook Courier set the scene as "Dense woods, deep ravines and steep hillsides." And to think that, given that dense, impenetrable landscape, reports had the escaped elephants in Yahk the next morning, some 67 km away. There are as many myths about how the Cranbrook elephant stampede started as there were escaped elephants, and nobody can agree on that number. It ranges in the newspaper and historic record from five to fourteen parading pachyderms.
Gordon Brown's Bandwagon [March-April 1977] article, "The 1926 Sells-Floto Circus Elephants," is considered the definitive work on the Cranbrook stampede and Brown lists fourteen bulls as comprising the total herd. One latter day web developer, "Scotty," has all fourteen elephants stampeding with seven being rounded up fairly quickly. T.W. Paterson in his book British Columbia - The Pioneer Years also has all fourteen stampeding with seven being quickly rounded up in the Cranbrook cemetery and the remaining seven scattering in all directions. A.J. Ironside, former Cranbrook C.P.R. Superintendent and the man who later coordinated the great elephant hunt for the Sells-Floto circus, wrote "Led by Myrtle, 12 of the 14 elephants started across the tracks, past the coal sheds and made for the dense woods." Thomas G. Wheeler, reporting to The Syracuse Herald of Syracuse, New York, said "Two of the herd were recaptured shortly after they escaped," supporting Mr. Ironside's statement.
The newspapers of the day do little to clarify the issue of numbers. The Calgary Daily Herald of August 9th, 1926 had five elephants escaping and still at large. The next day the same paper had six animals escaped with three immediately recaptured, another located and two completely at large. The Cranbrook papers, strangely silent on what will become a huge international story, have almost nothing to say on the escape and ensuing stamped.
What is clear is that three elephants avoided capture for some time. They were Tillie, Myrtle and Charlie Ed.
The event that probably made the Cranbrook stampede international news was the rumoured sighting of elephants at Yahk. This precipitated the release of a train order by C.P.R. dispatcher Frank Guimont. Eric Sismey's interview with Mr. Guimont in the October 24, 1965 Victoria Colonist reads, in part:
"When a man has pounded a telegraph key for nearly half a century; after he has worked for many of the railroads on the North American continent [J. Francis Guimont worked for 22 American railroads] it is not surprising that he has dot-'n-dashed train orders to cover every kind of emergency, fire and flood, snowslide, rockslide, and wreck. Yet on August 7, 1926, J. Francis Guimont tapped out the most unusual train order ever sent over the wire. It read: 'To all trains east - at Sirdar, B.C. Keep lookout for elephants on track. Advise if sighted from the first telegraph office giving location'."
This train order was seized upon by several railroad men and sent in to their various union and trade magazines, all of which were published in the United States. The story spread like wild fire.
Sells-Floto circus management moved quickly to do everything within its power to retrieve the escaped elephants. They had a massive investment in the animals and they were one of the most popular circus draws. Tillie had been taught the latest dance craze, the Charleston. Charlie Ed had his own special clown act. The herd was not the same with some of the stars gone. Sells-Floto had to cancel its Fernie date, and in fact departed leaving the whole herd of elephants and their travelling companions, the five camels, behind when the train left on Saturday night, August 7th, to play four Washington state engagements and the big show in Vancouver, B.C.
An airplane was dispatched from Wichita, Kansas, with Cheerful Gardner of the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus and other experienced elephant trainers and helpers. Gardner is described in a release to the Edmonton Bulletin:
"Elephant Gardner, who is 'Lord High Controller' of all elephants, or, as they are known in circus parlance, 'bulls,' for the American Circus Corporation, and who is reputed to know more about elephants than even the 'bulls' themselves suspect, is being rushed here to take up the chase. If Gardner is unable to round up the animals no man in America can, and it is then that the orders to shoot will be issued."
The airplane was to be employed in the hunt as well, scanning the unsettled territory to the south of Cranbrook. Unfortunately the airplane encountered rough weather and had to land in Denver, Colorado. Cheerful Gardner continued on by rail, arriving in Cranbrook on August 13th. Zack Terrell stayed behind with the elephant herd, to manage both the animals contained in the C.P.R. stockyard corrals and the hunt. He left on August 12th with the camels and eleven elephants, for Seattle, Washington. At that point the management of the hunt was turned over to A.J. Ironside It was Mr. Ironside who brought in the Ktunaxa trackers to locate the missing elephants.