Ill-conceived local PR stunt 121 years ago was a real train wreck

The Crowd. (Texas Collection photo)
The Crowd. (Texas Collection photo)(KWTX)
Published: Sep. 15, 2017 at 12:35 PM CDT
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The train doesn’t stop here anymore, in fact, the train only stopped here once, but it was an explosive event.

Known as the Crash at Crush, a pre-planned head-on locomotive collision that was one of the most outrageous publicity stunts ever devised took place 121 years ago today in a pasture 3 miles south of West.

They called the place Crush after the railroad executive who dreamed up the spectacle, William George Crush.

It was a massive crash that sent train cars sprawling alongside the track, but when the boilers in the locomotives exploded, the stunt turned deadly.

Two people died and several suffered serious injuries, accounts of the event say.

In 1896 Crush, the general passenger agent for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, also known as MKT or just Katy, took on the challenge of attracting attention to the railroad company hoping to increase passenger ticket sales and freight shipments.

No one’s sure just what prompted Crush to propose the idea of a train wreck to attract attention, but some say it was a result of the company’s having a large surplus of 30-ton steam locomotives when it upgraded to 60-ton models and not knowing what to do with them.

Whatever the case, Crush proposed the idea and he company bosses bought it.

Locomotives No. 999 and No. 1001 were selected as the combatants, the first painted bright green with red trim, the second blood red trimmed in green.

Katy arranged 33 excursion trains all around the state and charged riders $2 round trip to witness the crash, but no admission was charged.

Organizers made every effort to draw a crowd.

"We had a good time before the wreck, though," remembered Frank Barnes, a member of one of the Crush train crews.

“You see, in order to advertise the event we toured all of North Texas with one of the trains.

“We went to Waco, Denison, and all those towns along the Katy.

“Thousands of people came to see the engines at each stop,” Barnes would later recount.

That’s likely why some 40,000 to 50,000 spectators showed up.

The site was ready, two water wells having been drilled and tents rented from Ringling Brothers Circus had been set up next to a grandstand.

Area residents flocked to the site, some on horseback or in wagons, to watch the free show.

Track crews built a track parallel to the Katy mainline to ensure a runaway locomotive couldn’t get onto the main tracks.

The site selected was a shallow valley with rising hills on three sides that formed a natural amphitheater.

A carnival midway sprang up, with medicine shows, game booths and cigar stands to entertain the spectators as they waited for the main event.

Some 300 special lawmen were brought in to keep order.

The event started an hour late that day because security couldn’t get the crowd to move back to what was considered to be a safe distance.

At about 5 p.m. on September 15, 1896, train crews backed the engines up to opposite ends of the 4-mile-long track, set their steam valves to a pre-arranged setting, counted four turns of the engines’ drive wheels and jumped from the cabs.

Each engine had been carefully inspected to ensure there would be no mechanical failures on crash day.

"I'll tell you we really worked on those engines. Firemen in those days had to keep their engines in condition," Frank Barnes who was a member of one of the locomotive crews, would later recall.

Engineers said they figured the locomotives would reach a speed of about 45-miles-per-hour by the time they collided.

On impact metal smashed, timber splintered and dust and smoke from the heap of steel filled the air.

Then just as the dust started to settle, boilers in both engines exploded sending massive chunks of hot metal and shrapnel of all sizes into the air and into the crowd.

Jarvis Dane, a photojournalist from Waco who was the event’s official photographer, was injured when a large blot struck him in the head as he stood atop a platform that had been built for him.

Dane, who worked for a Waco newspaper, lost his left eye.

The wounded were collected, some from as far as half a mile away, and treated by doctors who had closed their offices so they could be on hand to the event.

Katy worked fast to remove the debris, but souvenir hunters massed at the site for days, even weeks after the crash to see what they could find.

Several people filed complaints against Katy which the railroad settled with cash and lifetime passes.

The railroad fired Crush on the spot, but rehired him the next day and gave him a bonus because of all the attention he brought to the railroad with his outrageous stunt.

Katy top brass ultimately concluded the stunt produced a great deal of interest in the railroad company and called it a success, but they never repeated it.

Crush retired from Katy with 57 years’ service.

The only thing that remains at the site today is a State of Texas historical marker.

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