On September 15, 1896, the second-biggest city in Texas was Crush, about 23 kilometres north of Waco. Crush had a population of perhaps 40,000 people, and most of the accoutrements of a town of its time: shops, wells, lodgings, bars, a funfair and a jail. One visitor described Crush as “fairly alive with humanity, representing every section and calling of people”. But on September 16, Crush no longer existed – just as it had not existed on September 14. In fact, Crush was conjured into being for just one day, to be the site of a train crash.
The idea belonged to William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company, formally abbreviated as the MKT, colloquially known as ‘the Katy’. By way of attracting publicity, Crush proposed to have two locomotives drive into each other. Three obsolete and unwanted 35-ton steam engines were sourced, one painted red with green trim, one painted green with red, one kept in reserve. A six-kilometre line of track was laid for the great occasion.
Crush was astute in his estimation of the hubbub his scheme would prompt. Texans were agog, and special trains were wrangled from Dallas and Fort Worth to ferry in onlookers. To drum up further excitement, Crush took the two doomed locomotives on tour, attracting huge crowds at stops along the Katy’s route.
Despite what may have been supposed – especially afterwards – Crush had actually made the effort to ask the always important question, “What could possibly go wrong?” He received assurances that the boilers on the engines were made of stuff sufficiently sturdy to withstand the impact. And so, at just after 5pm on the great day, Crush, overseeing proceedings astride a white horse, tossed his hat into the air to signal the crews in the locomotives to open the throttles, and make their escapes.
The locomotives each pulled six boxcars, draped with advertising for the Ringling Brothers Circus, Dallas’s Oriental Hotel, the Katy, and other businesses. They hit each other at about 80 kilometres an hour. “A terrific crash,” approved the correspondent from The Austin Weekly Statesman. “They fairly swallowed one another up, apparently sliding into each other.” However, pre-crash assessments of the robustness of the boilers proved swiftly, loudly and tragically optimistic. As the splinters from the impact settled, both boilers exploded. Fragments of hot metal, from nuts and bolts to hefty shards of bodywork, were sprayed across surrounding countryside and into the crowd.
Unbelievably, only two people were killed. Ernest Darnall had climbed a tree about 800 yards from the point of impact in search of a better view: his skull was split in two by a length of brake-chain. A Mrs J.L. Overstreet had hers fatally fractured by a chunk of iron: she’d been a thousand yards from the crash. The official photographer of the collision, Jarvis Deane, had an iron bolt driven through one eye, and was written off in immediate reports, but somehow survived. Even more incredibly, estimates of other injuries did not exceed double figures.
Many have been sacked over much less, and the MKT ushered Crush to the door. However, he was reinstated once the railway realised that the spectacle he’d staged had done wonders for bookings, and that folk seemed inclined towards a philosophical view of the casualties (even in the immediate aftermath, more people seemed interested in souveniring wreckage than attending to the injured). Settlements were reached with the families of the dead. The now cyclopic photographer Deane was bought off with $10,000 and a lifetime rail pass.
Perhaps most strangely of all, Crush was far from the last exhibition of its kind. Iowa showman “Head-On” Joe Connolly wrecked at least 146 locomotives at state fairs and similar festivities between 1896 and 1932, and he wasn’t alone. It’s hard to know precisely what aspect of human psychology is so excited by destruction and demolition. But it’s sure hard to imagine a crowd so big turning up to watch trains being built.
Photos: The Texas Collection, Baylor University