By Jim Harmon

By now, the whole world has seen video of the “Great Escape of Viola,” the circus elephant, in Butte.

But it’s not the first time a performing pachyderm has bolted for freedom in southwest Montana.

In June 1935, the Tom Mix Circus was touring Montana when a truck carrying its famed pachyderm “Sahara” collided with a cow on the highway three miles west of Three Forks, Montana.

“The crash,” reported the Associated Press, “toppled the heavy vehicle into the river, drowning a valuable trained horse while another prized animal had its back broken. The truck driver and a helper escaped injury, though they were also plunged into the river. The circus show was en route to Bozeman from Butte.”

Newspaper Clipping - June 8, 1935
Newspaper Clipping - June 8, 1935

“The pachyderm romped blithely through the brush along the Jefferson River, its keeper in pursuit, after the elephant truck overturned.”

“Gone native, at least for the moment, the ponderous animal dived into the Jefferson and for the first time perhaps in many years, it cavorted gaily about in the ripples, finally taking to the opposite shore.”

“Acrobat Gus Bell swam the river but failed to induce the ‘old lady’ to return. Keeper Jacob Reese arrived later, mounted her head and swam back to the road. Sahara did her usual tricks in the afternoon performance.”


Nicole Girten, a reporter for The Daily Montanan, said of this past week’s incident: “A circus elephant temporarily escaped the Butte Civic Center Tuesday afternoon, strutting along Harrison Avenue and into the Town Pump parking lot before safely being brought back by a trainer.”

The animal is part of the Jordan World Circus, which was in Butte for a single performance at the Civic Center.

Reports indicate the pachyderm was frightened by a car back-firing. It trotted across a street with its trainer in pursuit. The slow-speed chase lasted only a minute or so. The only damage was to a rickety old fence.

But with the lightning speed of today’s social media, the resulting cell-phone video “went viral,” as they say.


Immediately, jokes began circulating, including one by Republicans claiming it was a portent of a right-wing takeover in Silver Bow County.

Almost as fast, animal rights activists decried the whole affair. Cities like Missoula have long banned circus elephants, calling their forced performances and captivity cruel.

The Jordan World Circus has additional stops in Bozeman Billings, Helena and Great Falls before leaving the state.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at