Staged Train Wrecks Roused Huge Crowds

Staged train wrecks were the demolition derbies of the late 1800s. Yes, the economy was sagging. People wanted their worries to vanish in gargantuan clouds of smoke and debris, even if only temporarily. Historians offer multiple reasons why staged train wrecks became as popular as Woodstock. As it turns out, humans like to watch things crash.

 

The Killer Crash At Crush Was Considered A Spectacular Success

The date was September 15, 1896. The place was a temporary town. It was organized in an open area that resembled a natural amphitheater outside of Waco, Texas. Carnival-style concession stands lined the venue. A circus tent was erected.

An estimated 40,000 people electrified the air with excitement to witness the dueling 35-ton engines. One was painted red with green trim. The other was green with red trim. Each towed cars decorated with colorful advertisements. Those were another source of revenue.

5 p.m., the gladiator engineers moved slowly down the track that had been laid specifically for their battle. They stopped as if to salute each other as the crowds roared. Then they reversed gear, backing up to wait for the white hat to drop signaling the head-on to start.

George Crush, Early Master Mind Of Staged Train wrecks

The man in the white hat was William George Crush (July 3, 1865 to April 12, 1943), the Passenger Agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, better known as Katy. Crush had the instincts of P.T. Barnum, who some say was his friend. He was inspired by the 1895 Ohio wreck organized by railroad equipment salesman, A.L Streeter. But when Crush initially proposed the idea to his bosses, they hemmed and hawed.

Katy Railroad executives were grappling with increasing competition from other railroads plus a sagging economy. And it was Crush’s job to boost publicity and increase ticket sales. But Katy had another big problem, or as Crush saw it, an opportunity. They needed to replace their 35-ton engines with 60-ton engines. Some were sold to businesses like logging camps. Still several were left.

The event itself would be free. But Crush calculated gains in both publicity and tens of thousands of train ticket sales at $1 to $3.25 per person. Only Katy trains would be allowed to the distant location of the two old locomotives running head-on into each other. His boss’s finally gave him a green light.

Crush Became A Town, But Only For One Day

Crush chose a shallow valley just north of Waco. It was conveniently located close to Katy’s Waco-Dallas track. In early September 500 workmen began construction of the temporary town of Crush. They laid four miles of track for the duel. They built a grandstand and three speaker’s stands, two telegraph offices, a stand for reporters, and a bandstand.

A Ringling Brothers circus tent housed a restaurant. A carnival-style midway included stands offering food and drinks plus dozens of medicine shows, game booths.

“Finally, workmen erected a special depot with a platform 2,100 feet long, and a sign was painted to inform passengers that they had arrived at Crush, Texas.”

A Crush of Publicity Set The Stage For The Duel

Advertising for the event started months ahead, along with advance train ticket sales.

According to Allen Lee Hamilton in the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas:

“Throughout the summer of 1896 bulletins and circulars advertising the “Monster Crash” were distributed throughout Texas. Many newspapers in Texas ran daily reports on the preparations, and some papers outside the state carried the story. As Crush had predicted, the Katy offices were flooded with ticket requests.”

What Could Possibly Go Wrong At A Head-On Crash ?

As it turned out, more happened than Crush anticipated. The start time of 4 P.M. passed because the multitude of trains had not yet arrived. Crush called the final start time at 5:00 P.M. for engines No. 999 and 1001 to commence the duel from opposite ends of the four-mile track built specifically for them.

The crowd jockeyed for maximum visibility. Finally, Crush galloped to the center of the track on a white horse. At ten minutes past five he raised his white hat, paused for drama then whipped it downwards, signaling the start. The crowd cheered as the engines jumped forward with their whistles shrieking.

As the engines reached speed, the engineers jumped out, presumably tumbling to safety.

According to the Dallas Morning News, September 16, 1896:

“The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly…”

The locomotives reached a speed of an estimated 45 miles per when they finally collided in mid-track. A moment later, the unexpected happened.

“A crash, a sound of timbers rent and torn, and then a shower of splinters… There was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded simultaneously and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel.”

Debris catapulted hundreds of feet into the air and into the crowd. People panicked and ran as debris rained down on the spectators. Two people were killed and at least six others were injured. People were slammed with chunks of iron, splintered wood and reportedly a ten-pound section of brake chain that killed one victim.

Waco photographer Jervis C. Deane was knocked off the press platform when a bolt ripped through his right eye and lodged in his brain. He lost the eye, but lived. After he recovered, he took out ads in local papers that read:

“Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, I am now ready for all photographic business.”

As soon as spectators determined immediate threat was passed, they ran to the wreckage to claim souvenirs.

“All that remained of the two engines and twelve cars was a smoking mass of fractured metal and kindling wood, except one car on the rear of each train, which had been left untouched. The engines had both been completely telescoped, and contrary to experience in such cases, instead of rising in the air from the force of the blow, were just flattened out.”

Corporate Damage Control Rolled Over The Disaster

Crush and his team of engineers had miscalculated the physics of the collision. Based on the many train accidents that occurred at the time, they were convinced that these engines would rise together in an inverted V shape. But in the Crush collision, the engines telescoped together. Despite the precautions that had been taken to ensure safety of the boilers, they exploded simultaneously.

Katy’s wrecker-trains removed the large pieces wreckage while spectators carted off the rest. Trains took the people back from where they came. Tents and platforms were all taken down. In short order, the pop-up town of Crush no longer existed.

Katy executives took care of death and injury claims with cash settlements and lifetime railway passes. Georg Crush was fired. He was rehired within days in light of the enormous success of the event. He continued his career with the company until retirement.

Staged Train Wrecks Were A Sign of The Times

America was in a depression starting in 1893. The divide between the “haves” and “have-nots” had never been greater.

In Train Crash at Crush, Texas: America’s Deadliest Publicity Stunt, author Mike Cox says:

“But a person’s economic standing did not seem to have an impact on their appetite for entertainment. If anything, the dismal years of 1893-95 (actually, from 1873 to 1896 the economy was in recession 50 percent of the time) had practically made escapism a national pastime.”

Circuses, Wild West Shows, even county fairs had become more daring in their entertainments.

Despite the deaths and injuries that occurred at Crush, staged train wrecks became a thing. As the economy sagged, local fairs and other events struggled for visitors. Competition was fierce and people demanded higher stakes for their ticket dollars.

When the Iowa State Fair faced closure, Joe Connolly proposed a train collision to boost ticket sales. The Crash at Crush had not yet occurred and the Fair’s board agreed. Connolly teamed with an experienced locomotive engineer to ensure safety. The event held on September 9, 1896. It is considered one of the things that saved the Iowa State Fair.

Connolly launched a career as an event promoter who staged train wrecks across the United States. He became known as “Head-On Joe” with more than 100 crashes to his name.

Staged Train Wrecks Remained Popular Until 1930s

Despite the deaths and injuries that occurred at Crush, staged train wrecks became a thing. As the economy sagged, local fairs and other events struggled for visitors. Competition was fierce and people demanded higher stakes for their ticket dollars.

When the Iowa State Fair faced closure, Joe Connolly proposed a train collision to boost ticket sales. The Crash at Crush had not yet occurred and the Fair’s board agreed. Connolly teamed with an experienced locomotive engineer to ensure safety. The event held on September 9, 1896. It is considered one of the things that saved the Iowa State Fair.

Connolly launched a career as an event promoter who staged train wrecks across the United States. He became known as “Head-On Joe” with more than 100 crashes to his name.

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