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Jumbo, As Big As Life in Canada
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One of the most popular exhibits in New York's Museum of Natural History these days is the skeleton of the circus elephant Jumbo, the most famous of showman P.T. Barnum's many famous performers. But that's nothing. You can see the real thing, or at least something much closer to it than a bare skeleton, in southern Ontario, just across Lake Erie from the U.S. border.

It's a life-sized and incredibly life-like statue of Jumbo, modeled from 38 tons of concrete. It stands Il-feet tall, trunk curling high into the sky, at the western entrance to the city of St. Thomas. That's just off Highway 3, midway between Detroit and Buffalo.

It was very near there that Jumbo met his untimely death in 1885, while on tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in which he was the uncontested star, one whose name already had become a word used worldwide to describe any number of oversized people, places and things.

Barnum brought Jumbo over from England three years earlier. He had convinced the London Zoo, where Jumbo had long been a top attraction, to sell the elephant for $10,000, despite the objections of Queen Victoria and hundreds of thousands of other outraged Britons who considered Jumbo a national treasure. The extraordinarily gentle giant had been in London for 17 years, a particular favorite of children who were allowed to sit atop his broad back for rides around the zoo.

Jumbo appeared for several months at Barnum & Bailey's home arena, the Hippodrome in New York City. Then he went off on a lengthy tour with the circus, accompanied by Tom Thumb, a tiny elephant teamed with Jumbo for comic relief who became his constant companion.

Jumbo's end came after an evening performance in St. Thomas on Sept. 15, 1885. He and Tom Thumb were being led back to the railroad car in which they traveled when an unscheduled freight train burst on them out of a thick fog. The elephants balked at leaping down the steep banks on either side of the railroad tracks. Instead, they lumbered straight ahead to try to escape, but were quickly overtaken. Tom Thumb tumbled down the embankment, breaking his leg in the fall. Jumbo was thrown forward into the parked circus train, a tusk driven into his brain.

That's what actually happened. But the way showman Barnum told it, Jumbo died trying to protect his tiny companion by charging the locomotive of the errant freight train. The statue, in any case, was erected in 1985 to commemorate the lOOth anniversary of Jumbo's death, thanks to the contributions of residents, businesses and service clubs in St. Thomas and the surrounding Elgin County.

Barnum had billed Jumbo as "the largest and heaviest elephant ever seen by mortal man, either wild or in captivity." For once he wasn't exaggerating. One of the coolest places in town during St. Thomas' hot summers is in the ample shade cast by the sculptured trunk and huge stomach of Jumbo. If it's information as well as cooling-off you want, there's a complete tourist office adjacent to the statue with material covering a large section of southeastern Ontario, generally a very pretty, very green, and heavily wooded area, with lush, densely-planted farmland and many attractive small towns.

Jumbo is by no means the only thing of particular interest in St. Thomas, a city of about 32,000. It has two especially attractive parks, as warm in the summer with bright flowers in several large, nationally renowned horticultural gardens and full on weekends with picnickers, swimmers, ballplayers, and just plain loafers, some listening to open-air band concerts. You can travel around the parks, which include several lakes and an extensive wildlife refuge, by miniature train or horse-drawn cart.

If golf's your game, there are four courses within a short drive of St. Thomas. Camping facilities are available at two conservation areas near the city. If you're looking for indoor activities, there are several local museums and galleries. For details, just pull up next to the elephant on the edge of town. You shouldn't have any trouble finding him. He's the one with the 8000-pound legs.

NOTE: For more information contact St. Thomas and District Chamber of Commerce, 555 Talbot St., St. Thomas ON N5P 1C5, telephone (519) 631-1981.

Copyright Dick Meister