In September 1896, William Crush proposed his Texas railroad, the Katy Line, stage a head on collision of locomotives. Staged wrecks were big hits in other states, but the Crash at Crush became one of the deadliest publicity stunts in US history
The idea of planning and publicizing a train accident seems preposterous to us but in the late 19th century, organized train wrecks were common forms of entertainment and publicity stunts.
These staged collisions started in the late 1800s and continued well into the early 1900s. Trains were staged to travel down tracks from opposing directions with engineers jumping from them to their safety before the trains intentionally crashed. These spectacles drew massive audiences.
Joseph Connolly, from Iowa, would become known as Head On Joe, staging more than 40 train wrecks at state fairs and nationwide events between 1896 and 1932. Amazingly, not a single of these violent wrecks involved serious injuries.
It’s believed Connolly was inspired by other successful train wrecks, like the one organized by a railroad man named A.L. Streeter. He bought into the idea of staging an accident as a publicity stunt for a new park that was set to open, called Buckeye Park, near Lancaster, Ohio.
Streeter felt the average American had never seen a train accident and was convinced they would be entertained by watching two locomotives crash at high speed.
He arranged what’s believed to be one of the first successful intentional train wrecks in the nation on May 30, 1896.
The stunt brought in the crowds organizers hoped for. The plan was to charge the crowd admission to the crash but allow free admission to the park. An estimated 20,000 spectators were on hand and watched as two 45-ton freight engines that had become too expensive to maintain long term, were sacrificed.
They headed down the tracks of the Columbus, Hocking Valley and Toledo Railway toward the organizers goal: two engines, each towing three empty coal cars and a caboose ramming together at a combined speed of 100 miles per hour.
It all went to plan with a Columbus newspaper reporting the sensational event in this way:
”Quicker than thought there was a crash, a fearful moan, the ‘hissing,and screeching of escaping steam, the rattle and bang of falling iron and steel, flying pieces, of debris, a last terrible sigh of the dying iron steeds, a settling of the mass of ruins and’ all was over,”
The crowd went wild and the event was a success. No injuries. Just countless excited spectators who approached the crash site and took home pieces of the wreckage as tokens and reminders of what they had witnessed.
William Crush was one of the many railroad men who paid attention to what had happened in Ohio. Crush began his career with the railroad in 1890 in the auditor’s office of the Chicago, Indianapolis, and Louisville in his home state of Kentucky. In 1893 he joined the Katy Line as general passenger agent for Texas at Denison. By 1895 he was transferred to Dallas where he worked as a marketing agent for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, which was known as the “Katy” line.
In the 1890s, entertainment options for the two million settlers in Texas were few and far between. There were farmers’ groups for men, the Christian Temperance Union for women, and everyone enjoyed college football when games began in 1894.
By 1896, the country was in the midst of an economic downturn. People weren’t as excited to spend money on a two dollar round trip ticket to ride the Katy Line, without a big event to motivate them to take the train. Folks were finding it hard to find jobs and they were holding on to the money they were able to make.
Businesses were worried as they saw companies file for bankruptcy nationwide. The Katy line had made more than $1,000,000 in passenger sales and $3,000,000 in freight earnings in 1895 but the board was worried about the future of the railway and maintaining sales and growth.
William Crush worked hard to create new events and special excursions to encourage folks to buy tickets to ride the Katy Line, which ran through Waco and West, Texas. He needed something that would attract mass crowds and entice them to spend their money.
Through the 1890s, the Katy line began replacing 30 ton steam engines with modernized 60 ton units. Dozens of trains weren’t in operation and Crush brainstormed ways the Katy Line could make money off of the unused trains. Some were sold to logging operations while others were being scrapped.
Crush proposed a train wreck to publicize the Katy. The smashing of two trains had worked so well in other states and towns. But the Crash at Crush as it’s known, would leave several spectators severely injured and kill three.
The Crash at Crush was witnessed by an estimated crowd of 20,000 – 30,000. The publicity town of Crush, Texas, was the second largest city in Texas on the day of the event.
On September 15, 1896, Locomotive Number 999 and Locomotive Number 1001 were staged at the predicted collision point.
William Crush had promoted the crash as “the duel of the iron monsters.” This meeting on the tracks, which was photographed, was essentially a gentlemen’s handshake before the monsters began to back up to their starting location on the track.
William Crush was positioned on the back of a white horse and at the appointed time he gave the start signal by waving his hat. At that moment, the locomotive crews pushed the throttles to full force and the trains raced down the track toward each other. Engineers made their instructed jumps to safety and within two minutes as the trains sped along at about 45 miles per hour.
A reporter from The Dallas Morning News described the scene as follows:
“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 and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry.”Dallas Morning News, September 1896
Locomotive 999 and 1001 hit near the very spot they were expected to collide, at a combined speed of 90 miles per hour. Upon impact the front of the trains were lifted off the tracks and the fear of many engineers who said no to doing this, became reality.
The boilers on both locomotives exploded essentially created twin bombs.
The Dallas Morning News reporter who had witnessed the catastrophic event wrote:
“ the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel…”
Deadly pieces of hot iron and steel flew in all directions, flew directly into the crowd that moments before had been cheering that moment of collision. Thousands began running for their lives.
Official event photographer, Jarvis “J.C.” Deane, was standing in a media section about 100 feet from the track when the explosion sent a bolt flying through the air. The bolt hit Deane, ripping out his right eye. Some of the photos that serve as an historical record of the day, were taken by Deane who survived but was in a coma for months.
Witnesses watched in horror, describing the scene as a battle field with the injured on the ground crying out in pain or in shock. Dozens were injured with wounds ranging from shrapnel punctures to burns caused by the steam and broken bones.
The iron and steel debris caused the death of three people.
A large piece of iron hit the daughter of a local farmer named John Overstreet. He would later say she seemed OK, just shaken. But within thirty minutes, his daughter was dead. The family later learned the iron had fractured the young girls’ skull.
Two men were killed, including a teenager named Ernest Darnall. Ernest had climbed up into a mesquite tree for a better view of the event. When the explosion happened, Ernest was killed instantly when a hook that had been on wrecking chain hit him in the head, just between the eyes and split his skull.
DeWitt Barnes had been standing between his wife and another woman when he collapsed, having been hit and killed by a hot bolt that ripped through his body like a bullet.
While some spectators tried to help people who had been injured, others rushed toward the wreckage to grab debris, souvenirs from the tragic crash at crush.
The wounded would be attended to, and the dead taken to undertaker, but within hours of one of the greatest publicity stunt accidents in american history, the town of Crush, Texas was dismantled. The grandstand and midway torn down and hauled away. The wreckage of the accident was removed by Katy railway and the town of Crush, Texas, ceased to exist.
The Katy Line faced wrongful death lawsuits and lawsuits from those who were injured as a result of the wreck. The company settled the lawsuits with lifetime rail passes and large cash payments, including a $10,000 settlement with photographer, Jarvis Deane, who had lost an eye and was unable to work for months after the crash. Deane had a long road to recovery, but in 1898 he returned to work and posted this notice in Waco newspapers:
“Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, I am now ready for all photographic business.”Jarvis “J.C.” Deane
As to the man who proposed the Crash at Crush, it’s been reported through the years that he had been fired within an hour of things going sideways, but that is not true. Research by Mike Cox, a veteran Texas journalist and author of “Train Crash at Crush Texas”, found that Crush remained on the payroll and was never fired from the Katy Line. In fact, The Katy line assigned Crush to handle the victims’s claims from the disaster.
William Crush did release a statement via the Dallas Morning News on September 17, 1896. In it, he spoke of his regret that there were injuries and death but he defended his efforts and the efforts of constables to keep people beyond the danger line. He said that it was impossible to do so, no matter how much he and the constables begged people to move back.
As to what happened after the explosion, Crush wrote:
As soon as I discovered that several people had been hurt, I immediately took charge of the arrangements for their comfort and everything has been done for them that medical skill can accomplish.” He continued saying: “Barring a few minor details everything was executed as intended, and I believe we had the largest crowd that ever assembled in this state. Of course no one could have foreseen that the explosion of the boilers would occur. Every possible precaution had been taken to guard against such a contingency, and we believed that it was almost impossible, but in this as in many other cases plans miscarried to our very great regret.”William Crush, Dallas Morning News, September 17, 1896
Crush worked for the railway and rose through the ranks into high level administrative positions, until he retired in 1940 at the age of 74.
Ragtime composer and Texas native, Scott Joplin, was rumored to have been in the crowd at Crush, Texas but that’s never been confirmed. We do know he performed in the region around the time of the accident and like all Americans, was shocked to hear what had happened and process the tragedy.
Joplin composed “The Great Crush Collision March” and dedicated it to the Katy Line in October of 1896, less than a month after the tragic event. The music remains a stand out because Joplin piano march features sound effects that represent the train…
Joplin’s composition helped solidify the Great Crash at Crush in Texas history
The Crash at Crush Texas did not stunt the Katy line’s growth in the decades that followed the accident. The whole thing seemed to be forgotten as Texans benefited from the expanded transportation options thanks to the Katy Line’s growth and expansion across the state.
For a long time, anyone wanting to visit the Crash at Crush site were out of luck. Crush Texas had only existed for a few hours in September of 1896 and was packed up and hauled off by sundown.
Historian and former mayor of Waco, Roger Conger, did some exploring and research back in the 1970s. Made countess trips out to the area north of waco in an effort to find the exact spot of the former Crush Texas. He told the Dallas Morning News that he had walked all over the area with a metal detector, digging up what he figured to be about 25 or 30 pounds of ”shrapnel” from a field. That shrapnel was rusty metal fragments and remains of the boilers that had exploded and were buried a few inches in the soil on the day of the crash at crush.
Roger Conger was part of the group that helped post a historical marker in the middle of the field in 1976. A marker you’d likely miss if you were driving through the area because it sits just off Interstate 35, south of west Texas, in a quiet and still pasture not far from one the biggest publicity stunt failures of all time.
On the day of the Crash at Crush, Texas humorist, Alex Sweet, was on hand and watched from a distance. He joked that he had seen enough that day to plan the next grand event Texans could enjoy…he suggested “a prearranged, scheduled meeting between a waterspout and a tornado.”
Remember When: Buckeye Park and a Demolition Derby. Lancaster Eagle Gazette. 8 September 2014
Crash at Crush: A calamity beyond hypester’s dreams. Waco Tribune-Herald. 15 September 2006
Crush’s Crash: A Stunt That Went Awry. Dallas Morning News. 22 September 1985
Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad Company. Handbook of Texas Online. 15 June 2010
The Great Texas Train Crash at Crush. The Museum of Unnatural Mystery. 2005
A Train Company Crashed Two Trains. You Will Believe What Happened Next. Smithsonian Magazine. 28 July 2017
“Surrender”, “Casey Don’t You Fret” and “Last Train to Mars” by Dan Lebowitz; “I Need to Start Writing This Down” by Chris Zebriske; “Lost Cowboy” by Coyote Hearing; “Dude, Where’s My Horse” by Nat Keefe and the Bowties; “Slow Hammers” by The Mini Vandals; “Amazing Grace” by Cooper Cannell; Northern Lights” and “Tupelo Train” by Chris Haugen Licensed under Creative Commons.
Great Crush Collision March by Scott Joplin. 1896. Performed by Eunhye Shin. Produced by Stephen Bolech. Performance arranged by Eric Ames.