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September 13, 2023

The Crash at Crush: A Crazy Publicity Stunt Turned Deadly in 1896

The Crash at Crush was a one-day publicity stunt in the U.S. state of Texas that took place on September 15, 1896, in which two uncrewed locomotives were crashed into each other head-on at high speed. William George Crush, general passenger agent of the Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad, conceived the idea in order to demonstrate a staged train wreck as a public spectacle. As a result, an estimated 40,000 people attended the event. Unexpectedly, the impact caused both engine boilers to explode, resulting in a shower of flying debris that killed two people and caused numerous injuries among the spectators.

Locomotives and crews pose for photos prior to their staged wreck near Waco, Texas, in 1896.

The Missouri–Kansas–Texas Railroad (popularly known as the “Katy”, from its “M-K-T” initials) had first reached the Crush area in the 1880s, during the construction of a route between Dallas and Houston. As the railroad expanded, the Katy replaced its 30-ton steam engines with newer, more powerful 60-ton engines, and subsequently a stockpile of the older units, for which the railroad now had no use, began to accumulate.

In 1896, Katy agent William Crush proposed a publicity stunt that could make use of the obsolete Katy trains to be held along the Dallas–Houston route at a site 14 miles (23 km) north of Waco and 3 miles (4.8 km) south of the town of West, in McLennan County.

A locomotive crash staged by the Columbus and Hocking Valley Railroad at Buckeye Park near Lancaster, Ohio on May 30, 1896 had been a huge success. Buckeye Park was established and owned by the railroad to entice residents of nearby Columbus to take weekend excursions. The locomotive crash was planned for the park’s annual opening day and drew approximately 20,000 spectators. While no admission was charged, money was made on the railroad passenger traffic to and from the park.

Crush imagined a similar spectacle for which Katy could advertise to thousands of potential passengers. Crush’s superiors agreed to his proposal and put him in charge of the project. As with the crash at Buckeye Park, the event would be free of charge, instead profiting from the sale of tickets on special excursion trains that would run to and from the site. The price was US$ 3.50 in 1896 (equivalent to $125.35 in 2023) per round-trip ticket from anywhere in the state.

Two water wells were drilled at the site and a circus tent from Ringling Brothers was erected, as well as a grandstand, three speakers’ stands, a platform for reporters, two telegraph offices, and a special train depot, over which a giant sign proclaimed the new town as “Crush, Texas”. Events from the Midway Plaisance, including lemonade stands, carnival games, medicine shows, cigar vendors and other sideshows were highly anticipated, with a construction foreman saying that “This feature alone will be worth going to Crush to see.”

A separate four-mile segment of track was built for the event alongside the Katy railroad so that there was no chance a runaway train could end up on the main line; each end of the track was situated atop a low hill on opposite sides of a bowl-shaped valley in which the trains would meet. The locomotives to be used were two 35-short-ton (32 t) decommissioned Baldwin engines, No. 999 and No. 1001.

Photograph by Jervis C. Deane of two locomotives at the moment of their head-on collision as part of a publicity stunt in 1896 at Crush, Texas. Deane lost an eye from the boilers exploding.

The locomotive boilers explode during impact.

The crowd explores the wreckage.

The crowd, estimated at 40,000, for the staged wreck.

Two were killed when the locomotive boilers exploded.

On the day before the exhibition, railroad officials staged a speed test of the engines to help predict the precise point of collision. Katy engineers assured Crush that his grand idea was safe, specifically that the boilers on the steam engines had been designed to resist ruptures and that, even in a very high-speed crash, they were unlikely to explode. Each engine would pull six boxcars behind it; because the couplers used to link the cars were considered unreliable, the cars were chained together to prevent them from coming apart during the impact.

Crush insisted on restricting the general public to a minimum of 200 yards (180 m) away from the track, but allowed members of the press to be within 100 yards. Katy officials expected a crowd of between 20,000 and 25,000 people to attend, but the clever marketing ploy was an overwhelming success and the railroad sold out more than 30 special excursion trains to the event.

The crash was delayed for an hour because the crowd resisted being pressed back by the police to what was supposedly a safe distance. At about 5 pm, the two trains, pulling cars loaded with railroad ties, slowly met in the middle of the track to be photographed. They were then rolled to their starting points at the opposite ends of the track. Crush, riding a white charger, signaled the start of the main event. The engineers and crew aboard each train opened the steam to a prearranged setting, rode for exactly four turns of the driving wheels, and then jumped from the trains.

Each train reached a speed of about 45 miles per hour (72 km/h) by the time they met near the anticipated spot, though some observers believed they were traveling much faster.

Debris was blown hundreds of feet into the air. Panic quickly broke out as the crowd turned and ran. Some of the debris came down among the spectators, killing two and seriously injuring at least six others. A photographer, Jarvis “Joe” Deane of Waco, lost one eye to a flying bolt.

Impresario Crush, a disciple of P.T. Barnum, was “fired” the evening of the crash, but rehired the following day. Rumor even had it he got a bonus for all the attention he brought the railroad, which curiously saw a surge in business afterwards. He worked for the company for 57 years until his retirement.

The combustion, carnage and carnival atmosphere of the proceedings were immortalized by ragtime composer and Texas native Scott Joplin, in his “Great Crush Collision” march.

Despite the catastrophe of the Crash at Crush, the Katy Railroad Company prospered into the first half of the 20th century. Staged locomotive collisions also became an element of mass public amusement on into the twentieth century.


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