Why you should care
Because even when things are meant to go off the rails, you can still court disaster.
It was literally an accident waiting to happen. A total train wreck. That, in fact, was the point. And the 50,000 or so people gathered on the Texas prairie awaiting that accident had made the temporary town of Crush the state’s second largest city for one afternoon in the late summer of 1896. Then the man responsible for the gathering, William Crush, raised his hat and two steaming locomotives took off, racing toward each other and the much-anticipated collision at speeds reaching 45 miles per hour.
Shortly thereafter, the assembled rubberneckers got exactly what they had come for — one of the most explosive accidents in American history, but one that was of an entirely different magnitude than anyone, including the event’s organizers, could have predicted. In the ensuing carnage, the “Crash at Crush” quickly changed from spectacle to tragedy, and then … back to spectacle.
As the U.S. remained mired in an economic depression in 1896, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (commonly known as “the Katy” line) faced two major problems: how to boost revenue and ticket sales amid increasing competition in the rail industry and what to do with an aging fleet of locomotives as it upgraded to larger, more advanced steam engines. And so the company’s creative passenger agent for Texas, William Crush, pitched an idea that would address both problems in one spectacular fell swoop.
The collision was like two bombs detonating.
With atom bombs and Justin Bieber still far off on the horizon in the late 19th century, an explosive train collision was perhaps the most eye-catching manmade disaster imaginable. And Crush knew he had the trains, the space and the public appetite to attempt such a spectacle. His plan was simple: ferry paying spectators to an isolated locale where two obsolete locomotives would be positioned face-to-face on the tracks. After gunning the trains to full speed, the engineers would jump to safety, and the masses would enjoy the fiery demolition from a safe distance. “Oh,” the exuberant Crush effused to The Galveston Daily News, “but it’s going to be a smash-up.”
Preparations got underway at a site 14 miles north of Waco, where a plateau off the tracks formed a perfect amphitheater from which to watch the show. For the occasion, as E. R. Bills details in Texas Obscurities: Stories of the Peculiar, Exceptional and Nefarious, Crush and a crew of over 500 men laid four miles of independent track and constructed a temporary rail station dubbed “Crush, Texas,” as well as a grandstand, press platform and bandstand. A tent borrowed from Ringling Bros. was converted into a restaurant, several cars of water and dozens of lemonade stands were assembled to offer relief from the Texas heat and a carnival atmosphere of games, cigar stands, speaker platforms and other amusements was created. Crush also promoted the hell out of the event, and the two trains scheduled to collide were sent out on whistle-stop tours around the state.
Katy’s engineers had assured Crush that the boilers inside the locomotives were designed to avoid rupturing in the event of collisions, and a safety perimeter of about 150 yards around the crash point was considered sufficient to keep viewers out of harm’s way.
And by 10 a.m. on the big day, 10,000 viewers had already gathered — a crowd that would swell to five times that number by 5 p.m. That’s when the locomotives, each carrying several cars in tow, eased into their starting places, and Crush, astride a large black horse, gave the signal. “The rumble of the two trains,” as The Dallas Morning News reported, “was like the gathering force of a cyclone.”
The actual collision, however, was more like two bombs detonating. Both boilers exploded and, as The News put it, “the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel.” The debris shot as far as 300 yards away as thousands scrambled to avoid the “black clouds of death-dealing iron hail.” Three spectators were killed, six others seriously injured and countless onlookers got scorched by the hot shrapnel — many long after the explosion, when they picked through the flaming locomotive carcasses in the hunt for souvenirs.
The whole debacle may have, as Texas Monthly later reflected, “contributed mightily to the idea that Texans are hugely, almost divinely stupid.” But perhaps the most remarkable outcome was just how far from a PR train wreck the actual train wreck had been. Katy executives quickly compensated the victims, and ultimately the stunt was, just as Crush had promised, a public relations boon, attracting headlines and attention to the beleaguered railroad that far outweighed the public’s indignation. A cottage industry of sorts even grew up around the disaster. Ragtime legend Scott Joplin composed the hit “Great Crush Collision March” and countless Texas businesses attempted to exploit the newfound infamy, one Galveston clothier promising his own “Head End Collision” because “hard times have wrecked high prices.”
The Texas-size fiasco turned out so well that local humorist Alex Sweet joked that the next event would “be a prearranged, scheduled meeting between a waterspout and a tornado.” And if such an encounter could be arranged, you can bet there’s an entrepreneurial Texan like William Crush willing to try it.