The Great Crush Train Crash of 1896

So I’ve been doing research for 44 Years In Darkness, and through the rabbit warrens of the Internet, I came across a funky story that was completely new to me. I hope it’s new to some of you, too, because I can’t wait to share it.

The research trail went sort of like this: I wanted to find out what was going on during the years 1860 to 1904, while all that time, Rhoda was confined to the Utica crib at the Adams County almshouse. I knew that Scott Joplin was working around that time, so I did a bit of research on him. And THAT led me to a piece he wrote in honor of … a train crash. No kidding.

As we are mired in the 2016 political campaign, we might be tempted to compare the candidates’ obsessive wrangling to a train wreck — appalling, but impressive in its scope, and utterly impossible to look away from. we can even see political debates as a form of entertainment, more “last man standing” than “may the best man win”.

But in Texas, in 1896, one man actually took the two concepts — “train wreck” and “entertainment” — and smashed them together. Literally.

The Great Train Crash at Crush was supposed to be a late 19th century spectacle, a publicity stunt for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad. After months of hype, the day began with a rowdy carnival atmosphere.

It ended, as they say, in tears.

The crash was the brainchild of the fortuitously named William George Crush, the passenger agent for the railroad. In the 19th century, train crashes were headline-grabbing events, the same way plane crashes are today. People, then as now, were mesmerized by tragedy. Mr. Crush saw a way to capitalize on this gruesome fascination.

In the 1890’s, the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad, nicknamed the “Katy” line, had begun to replace their 30-ton steam engines with modern, 60-ton engines. The railroad had to find a way to offload the obsolete locomotives. Some were sold to logging camps and gravel companies. But the railroad still had plenty of the old engines left.

Then, in 1895, Crush had a brilliant idea. Why not stage a spectacular, planned train crash? It would definitely be impressive.Here was the plan: two locomotives (that were going to be scrapped anyway) would face each other at the ends of a track. Faster and faster they’d come, heading for certain destruction. The engineers would jump free from the trains at a safe distance, leaving the engines to rumble on to their fiery doom. And when they met — SMASH! How cool would THAT be? (Because, apparently, Mr. Crush was four years old.) And the railroad could sell tickets to the spectacle and make bank. The crash would be put on free of charge, but $2 bought a ticket on the Katy line from anywhere in the state.

The executives of the Katy line thought this was a great idea. (Two locomotives smashing together in a head-on collision: what could possibly go wrong?) They gave Crush the green light, and the party was on.

Throughout the summer of 1896, pamphlets advertising the “Monster Crash” were printed and distributed all over Texas. The two sacrificial engines were chosen, and made their way to towns all over the state, where they sat on display. “No. 1001” was painted a glossy cardinal red, and “Old No. 999” was painted bright green. Ticket sales boomed.

And Crush made sure the spectacle-goers would have a warm welcome. He picked out an empty spot of desert about 15 miles north of Waco, and started the preparations. To avoid even the merest chance that another train would be put in danger, Crush had a special track built for the planned carnage. Four miles of track were laid parallel to the existing line, dedicated to the crashing engines.

Workmen also built three speakers’ stands, a stand for reporters, a bandstand, and two telegraph offices. The event planners borrowed a circus tent from the Ringling Brothers’ Circus to serve as a restaurant. An entire carnival midway was set up, with game booths, patent medicine booths, and food and drink stands. Two wells were drilled, to accommodate the thirst of the temporary town. A depot platform 2,100 feet long was built to welcome arrivals to Crush, Texas.

Crush (both the man and the town) had been expecting 20,000 people to show up for the display. But on the morning of September 15, 1896, the first train showed up, fully loaded — and the trains kept coming. The lure of $2 tickets from anywhere in the state was irresistible, and the excursion trains were stuffed to capacity, with passengers even riding on the roofs of the cars. By 3 pm more than 40,000 people were milling around the impromptu town, buying popcorn and lemonade, listening to political speeches, and waiting for the promised epic crash.

The spectacle was delayed for about an hour. Police tried to move people back to what was considered a safe distance, but the crowds balked at that — they wanted ringside seats. When the audience finally settled down, William Crush rode out in front of the crowds on a white horse. A murmur of excitement rustled through the crowd as Crush raised his white hat high in the air. Then he brought it down with a snap, giving the signal to start.

The locomotives, at either end of the four-mile track, started chugging towards each their inevitable destruction. Each engine pulled several cars loaded with railroad ties, giving the trains some weight. The engineers opened the steam, waited for exactly four turns of the wheels, then jumped. The trains continued on, faster and faster. Each train was going about 45 miles per hour when they came together, just about where Crush had expected them to meet.

The two engines met with a tremendous, earth-shaking crash. Crush had been assured that the boilers couldn’t possibly explode — but that’s exactly what happened. The trains exploded, blowing shrapnel hundreds of feet into the air. Some of the debris fell into the crowd of spectators, killing two men and a woman and injuring several more. The photographer assigned to cover the event, Jarvis “Joe” Deane, lost an eye to a flying bolt. (All together, now: “It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.”)

William Crush was fired on the spot. (The next day, though, railroad officials realized that it really wasn’t Crush’s fault, so they hired him back.) In a subdued mood, everybody packed up their picnic baskets and went home. By nightfall, the town of Crush, Texas, population 40,000, had ceased to exist.

Amazingly enough, this tragedy didn’t stop people from staging train wrecks on purpose. As late as 1914, there was a train crash spectacle at the California State Fair.

Scott Joplin, who was performing in the area in 1896 and may actually have witnessed the crash, immortalized the event in a ragtime composition called The Great Crush Collision March. Joplin published the piece on October 15, 1896, and dedicated it to the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. The piece starts in a minor key, then moves on to a happy, catchy theme, representing the excitement and carnival atmosphere of the gathered crowds. The song wraps things up near the end with several discordant, awkward chords — the crash itself. The score included instructions to the performers on how to replicate the feeling of the collision with playing techniques and dynamics.

So there you go — the story of the Great Crush Train Crash. You learn something new every day.

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