The famous 'Crash at Crush' was staged by William George Crush, a friend of famed showman P.T. Barnum
By Neal Suit
Long before the Branch Davidians brought infamy to Waco, a staged train wreck made central Texas the focus of the national spotlight.
The famed 'Crash at Crush' incident was meant to attract publicity for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (M.K&T) Railroad, commonly known as the Katy and still operating today, by engineering a train wreck of two steam locomotives. Newspapers from all over the world wrote about the event in advance and people from around the country traveled to see the wreck at the designated site 16 miles north of Waco.
And for the 100 year anniversary of the wreck, the story was recounted from history books in the Carroll Library Texas Collection at the University.
According to the articles, the entire operation can be attributed to one man, William George Crush. One story says the idea for the staged wreck came to him when he noticed how quickly crowds gathered at at a train wreck site in the east, perhaps in Pennsylvania. Crush was the general passenger agent for the Katy but was given full control of putting on the spectacle.
It was not long before news of the event spread. While the Katy used posters and small advertisements for publicity, little effort was needed since almost every major newspaper was providing free publicity until interest was at a point that it is possible the crash was the main topic of conversation from California to New York. The event was set for September 15, 1896 and the crowds filed in to central Texas the days preceding.
Crush, a friend of showman and legend P.T. Barnum, borrowed a tent from The Ringling Brothers to be used as a restaurant and built a wooden jail in case there were pickpockets and drunks. Extra tracks were built to keep the railroad operational since it was clear that the line would
not be usable for days after the wreck. Crush, with the help of Katy engineers, laid out the logistics of the crash, setting up the impact point in front of a grandstand filled with V.I.P.s.
'Mr. Crush made sure there would be a wreck, too,' Frank Barnes, one of the engineers helping to stage the event, said in the September 1950 edition of the Katy Employees' Magazine. 'The locomotives were in perfect mechanical condition, but to insure that the event would come off Mr. Crush had an extra locomotive as a standby.'
By the day of the event it is estimated that up to 50,000 people were at the site, creating a town for a day, which was appropriately called Crush. In 1896, Waco only had a population of 12,000 and Dallas had just 40,000 so for that one day Crush may have bested Dallas for the title of Texas' largest city.
The collision was initially scheduled for 4 p.m., but since several trains scheduled to arrive with tourists had been delayed, the time for the wreck was rescheduled for an hour later. The crowd grew restless and only Crush threatening to cancel the event from horseback kept the crowd from rioting.
Among those in the crowd was a man sent by Thomas Edison to record the event on Edison's new invention, the kinetoscope, or motion picture machine. Scott Joplin, the ragtime composer, was probably also there as his piece Great Crush Collision is a musical rendition of the event.
At 5 p.m. the two locomotives, number 999 painted in bright green and number 1001 painted in bright red, set up about a mile from each other. Built in 1870 they weighed 35 tons each and went full throttle at each other. Maximum speed was reached at 90 miles an hour, and they set off cherry bombs laid on the tracks to create small explosions as the trains traveled along. The two trains met ten feet north of the designated impact point, which was close enough according to the engineer's calculations.
Three explosions followed one after the other. The first explosion was the collision of the engines. The next two explosions were the boilers of each train exploding. Both the photographers and V.I.P.s' stands were pelted with shrapnel. The official photographer for the event, Jervis Deane of Waco, was hit by a piece of metal that put out his eye and embedded several pieces of metal in his head.
The expulsion of the shrapnel occurred so quickly and the crowd was so closely packed together that it was impossible to run for cover. Three people died and several dozen spectators were injured.
One of those killed was sitting in a mesquite tree and was nearly decapitated by a length of chain. The explosion was so powerful that a piece knocked a woman unconscious half a mile away. Some were even injured as they attempted to pick up the scalding metal on the ground as a souvenir.
The majority of the damage was inflicted by the boiler explosions, an occurrence that only one Katy employee named Hanrahan had foreseen. Hanrahan had been so discounted in his view that Crush had simply ignored his warnings.
The injured and the families of the dead were paid by the Katy. Deane was paid $10,000 and accepted a lifetime pass from the railroad as payment for the loss of his right eye. A few weeks later he posted the following advertisement in the Waco paper according to the March 21, 1983 edition of Sports Illustrated:
Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.
Deane, Waco's high-priced photographer
Crush was fired immediately, but rehired a few days later without the general public's knowledge. Some have pointed out that if Crush's idea had succeeded, train wrecks would have been staged all over the country, perhaps forever associating Waco's name with the birth of staged train wrecks.
The site of the wreck today is one half mile west of Interstate 35, 16 miles north of Waco. There are no surviving witnesses to the crash, the last believing to be Millie Nemecek of West who died in 1983.
Copyright © 1996 The Lariat
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