Radar may bring artifacts to light

TYRONE – It’s a blustery day in late November and at first glance, it looks as if someone’s mowing the lawn.

It’s not lawn care but archaeology, and it’s what’s under the lawn that had about a half-dozen people at Bob and Susie O’Brien’s home along Van Scoyoc Hollow Road near Vail on Saturday.

The equipment isn’t a lawn mower but a ground-penetrating radar device that Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate student Kate Craig is pushing, getting a look at what lies a few feet under the grass in the hopes of unearthing some new artifacts from the 120-year-old Walter L. Main Circus train wreck.

“It’s heavy,” said Craig, of the one of two ground-penetrating radar devices, which are set up on wheels and pushed back and forth across a grid in half-meter sweeps, that students in the IUP Masters in Applied Archaeology program are hoping to find areas with the potential to yield more remnants of the crash, considered the worst circus train wreck at that time.

The group of IUP graduate students will present their project next year at the Society of American Archaeology Conference in Austin, Texas, and local historians hope their efforts will provide a jumping off point for a dig.

“It will tell us if something is buried in the ground,” said Paula Zitzler, the Williamsburg archaeologist who literally wrote the book on the 1893 Memorial Day train wreck that claimed the lives of five people and countless animals, including about 50 horses.

Zitzler joked that the Walter L. Main Circus Train wreck is a story “everyone knows and no one knows.” In her research for her book, Unscheduled Stop: The Town of Tyrone and the Wreck of the Walter L. Main Circus Train, published in 2008, Zitzler tried tracking down records that could tell her more about what kind of animals were on the train and their fates.

With a lack of recod keeping and the underground culture of circuses at the time, Zitzler said there isn’t anything out there besides news accounts of the time and the stories passed down through the years since the train jumped the tracks at McCann’s Crossing after descending from Sandy Ridge on the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Tyrone and Clearfield line.

The wreck was cleaned up in only three days, Zitzler said, and while historians know there were horses buried at the site, about what else might be hidden in the ground isn’t known.

With the ground-penetrating radar, the students will get a glimpse of what is about 2 meters beneath the ground in the area surrounding the O’Brien home and help guide any future dig at the site, Zitzler said.

IUP graduate student Dan Sandrowicz, 23, said the devices send radar pulses below the surface that reflect back. Objects in the ground, and even changing conditions in the soil, reflect back to produce data that the researchers can feed into a software program and “see” what’s beneath.

“What we’re doing today is expanding our grids,” Sandrowicz explained, adding that fellow students were also pulling core samples from areas in the back yard that the last trip indicated may hold something.

An even more powerful ground-penetrating radar device, one that is towed behind a van, is slated to be brought to the site later this year or in the spring, Sandrowicz said.

Although the mapping doesn’t tell the students what is beneath the surface, the devices are able to help narrow where to look.

Zitzler said it helps avoid the “needle in a haystack” approach that archaeology, without the technology, would have to rely upon when looking for artifacts.

Susie O’Brien credited Zitzler with getting the IUP students involved in looking at what may be buried beneath what was once O’Brien’s great-great grandfather’s farm.

It was Hiram Friday’s daughter, Hannah, who, as the story goes was milking a cow the day after the crash when a Bengal tiger appeared. As the tiger charged, Hannah Friday fled, leaving the cow to become a quick meal.

Other exotic animals, such as a lion, several panthers and a kangaroo, also escaped. Although the fate of some is known, including a panther that was killed 180 miles away near Shamokin after it presumably stowed away on a boxcar along the nearby PRR’s main line, the fate of other animals, and exactly what was on the train, remains a mystery.

“To me, it would be neat just to see what’s down there,” O’Brien said, noting over the years some artifacts, particularly horseshoes, have been found as houses were built in the area of the wreck. A cast iron donkey bottle opener, O’Brien said, once worked its way up to the surface in her garden. Other artifacts recovered at the time of the wreck, such as wood from wagons and train cars that found new uses as part of nearby chicken coops, are now on display at such places as the Altoona Railroaders Museum.

For lovers of history, especially circus history, the students’ effort is appreciated.

“I think it’s important to learn from circus history, and it was a tragic event from circus and railroad history,” said Larry McKee, 70, president of the Forepaugh-Lubin “Grandma” Tent No. 2 of the Circus Fans Association of America.

Tyrone Area Historical Society President Nancy Smith, 72, said it was exciting and wonderful to have the students at the site.

Smith credited Zitzler’s book with creating a lot of interest in the wreck. “You put circuses and trains together and you can’t lose,” Smith said.

Zitzler, an IUP alumna, said she had pitched the idea of getting a group of students to the wreck site to Beverly Chiarulli, IUP professor and director of IUP Archeological Services, for years. It’s a chance to bring history and archaeology together to help understand what happened 120 years ago, Zitzler said.

It’s also the thrill of wondering what remains hidden that could come to light.

“It would be cool to dig up a tiger in Pennsylvania,” Zitzler said.

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.