A Wrestling Train Wreck
Located on the shores of Lake Erie, Dunkirk, N.Y., population 13,131, was once known as the “Train Wreck Capital of the World.” A pretty ignominious claim to fame, to be sure, and perhaps unwarranted — though a Pennsylvania Railroad train did collide with a Nickel Plate freight in 1939. And, like most of Western New York, Dunkirk has been undergoing a massive population decline from more than 18,000 people in 1950.
Well, maybe it’s because they had danged good wrestling in those days. In the summer of 1950, wrestling made a big-time surge in Dunkirk, as some of the nation’s top stars converged on the tiny city as an afterthought to bouts in nearby Buffalo.
Wrestling had been an on-again, off-again fixture in the area, and Dunkirk saw some sporadic action into the spring of 1950. In June 1950, firemen in the town of Gerry, near Jamestown, sponsored a card as part of an annual rodeo. Working with Buffalo promoter Ed Don George, they landed a main event of Chief Suni War Cloud, just emerging as a popular star from his days in movies, against Steve “Mr. America" Stanlee. A week later, War Cloud squared off with 292-pound Texas Hi “Tiny” Lee, while Stanlee fought Western New Yorker Johnny Barend on the undercard.
Taken with the facts that televised wrestling from Buffalo (WBEN-TV, Fridays at 9 p.m.) was a big hit locally, and locals traveled to Gerry to see bouts (“Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wright and daughter, Sandra, attended professional matches at Gerry recently,” the Dunkirk Evening Observer duly noted), it only made sense to get a piece of the pie.
In July, directors of the Chautauqua County Fair met at Floral Hall on the fairgrounds to discuss plans for the fair’s 50th anniversary. Secretary C. J. Larson noted that the 1949 version of the fair lost $6,000. How to ensure that the fair could stay within its $72,000 budget? Why, wrestling, of course!
For a July 31 card, George locked up War Cloud, billed as the protégé of Jim Thorpe and said to be a winner in 56 straight matches. The promoter announced plans to import Farmer Don Marlin, who portrayed a Michigan backwood hick. No doubt rewriting a press release, the local paper gave its approval:
Dunkirk Evening Observer: Leaders behind the move to bring back pro wrestling on a large scale made it plain that no stone would be left unturned to secure, top shelf wrestling talent. New York state athletic commissioners, closely following the actions of the Dunkirk men, have already complimented them for their efforts.
Two days later, Marlin was added against Stanlee, while Kay Bell was signed to face War Cloud. The price of a ringside seat — $2.50.
The event turned out to be a success in the ring and at the box office. The crowd was put at 2,148, about all that Floral Hall could handle. War Cloud went over Bell in a two-out-of-three falls match in which the Indian twice won submissions with his Indian deathlock finisher. Puzzlingly, War Cloud’s undefeated streak was now put at 62 matches. In the prelims, Marlin and Stanlee drew after each securing a fall, while Barend beat Bull Montana. And the whole night nearly sparked a riot. A nasty crowd gathered around Bell, who was escorted away by a patrolman named Clem Lutz. Just as Bell was making his way to safety, “a smallish boy” ran up behind him and raked his back, apparently with a knife. Let’s let the hometown paper pick it up:
Dunkirk Evening Observer: [Bell] he turned and started to give chase. The startled boy rocketed through the crowd, knocked down Peace Justice Louis Pease of Ripley. As he tumbled, Mr. Pease in turn knocked down a woman, who was quite badly shaken up.
Few wrestling promoters will pass up a hot hand, so the next Monday, August 7, George lined up a dandy main event of Gorgeous George, still only a few years into his gimmick, against Jumpin’ Joe Savoldi, the Notre Dame footballer-turned-wrestler. George was at the start of a run where he’d draw more than 26,000 to Buffalo in a three-week span. Ticket sales were predictably brisk, with Jordan’s News Room, the 1950 equivalent of Ticketmaster®, taking more than 100 reservations within hours of the announcement. Promo photos of a bloody George dropping a recent match to Lou Thesz probably only hyped the appearance. Tiger Joe Marsh, fresh off silver screen appearances in “Pinky” and “Panic in the Streets” was added as a second attraction against Barend.
Again, a crowd of 2,100 packed the fairgrounds, only to be disappointed as George evaded one of Savoldi’s trademark dopkicks to score a third fall victory. George wore a long blue robe described as his “George Washington” robe, and stopped Savoldi in the first fall with a flying kick and headlock. Savoldi got the equalizer in just 1:31 before misconnecting and going down to George’s leglock. Interestingly, Howard “Hangman” Cantonwine acted as a bodyguard to George (his daughter Kay was a robemaker to the star), but he was cheered in his match against Kay Bell. Bell captured that match and Barend won a two-of-three falls contest with Marsh.
Truly, Dunkirk was on a roll. For an August 21 card, promoter George brought together Marlin and Lord Jan (James) Blears, a regal heel of the day. In delicious promotional material, Blears disclosed his visits to American were merely a sign of appreciation for the World War II era Lend-Lease program. Advance ticket sales for card were reportedly especially strong and the Dunkirk predicted the crowd would top the previous two events.
Dunkirk Evening Observer: Indian warriors with torn toms and similar characters caught the imagination of the amused spectators. The crowds grew and grew and as they did boxing slumped more rapidly into the background.
Hold on just a second. The crowd for this card was 1,049, a 50 percent dropoff from the earlier summer events. Promoters cited unseasonably cold weather (Western New York — cold? Could it be?) But the real reason was that you just couldn’t run a small town like Dunkirk three times in a month with big names. In fact, the August 21 card was the least appealing of the three. Blears finished off Marlin with a half-Boston crab after the two had split the first two falls (Blears used a full Boston crab in fall number one.) That bout, according to the scribe of the day, saved a “clinker” of card in which Barned beat Frank Klocko, a last-minute substitute and Stanlee stopped Marsh. Stanlee was appearing as a good guy after wrestling as a heel earlier in Dunkirk; that may or may not have confused customers who sat through the 45-minute bout.
Well, that was it. An old story in wrestling — something heats up, and promoters quickly suck the lifeblood from it. Dunkirk would continue to host wrestling for years. It was a regular stop for the National Wrestling Federation in 1972 and 1973, but Floral Hall at that point was dilapidated, and the venue was never packed for the likes of Waldo von Erich and Luis Martinez as it was for a brief time in 1950. But it was fun while it lasted.
© Steven Johnson, February 2007