The Crash at Crush

Reader Contribution by Column Sam Moore
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A poor photo showing the two engines just as the cow catchers crumpled. Photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

It’s difficult to believe that American railroads deliberately set up “Cornfield Meets,” or head-on collisions, between two of their trains but they did!  It’s very doubtful that anyone today, except perhaps a few Texans, are familiar with just such an event, known as the “Crush Crash,” or are aware that for one day, September 15, 1896, between 40,000 and 50,000 people gathered in the fictitious town of Crush, Texas, making it, for that day only, the second-most populous town in the state.

During the late 1800s the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (M-K-T, nicknamed the Katy) railroad operated a line between Dallas and Waco. During a modernization program in 1895, a batch of 30-ton locomotives of the 4-4-0 American configuration was replaced with modern 60-tonners. William George Crush was the general passenger agent for the Katy and saw an opportunity to both advertise the line, and to eliminate surplus locos.

Crush proposed to his bosses, who actually approved the idea, to stage a head-on collision between two of the old locomotives and to invite the public to watch, free of charge! The road even proposed to cut fares on the excursion trains it would run to haul folks to the event.

Crush chose a spot along the Dallas-Waco main line and had a 4-mile segment of track built that ran from one hill down through a valley and ended on another hill, ensuring that the expected 20,000 spectators would have a good view of the crash. Wells were drilled, telegraph lines and offices built, a huge circus tent erected, and grandstands for the spectators built. There was also a railroad depot put up with a signboard that read, “Crush, Texas.” There were concession stands to provide side-shows, food, drinks and games of chance, and there were platforms for the inevitable dignitaries and speech-makers.

Two of the old Baldwin locomotives were chosen. Frank Barnes, a retired Katy engineer who had been fireman on one of the engines recalled in a 1950 Katy Employees’ Magazine, “I’ll tell you, those were two flashy engines. Old 999 was painted green with red trim and was headed south, No. 1001 was red, trimmed in green and was headed north.” Advertising fliers flooded the state, and most newspapers reported regularly on proceedings, while during the months leading up to the big day, which was set for September 15, 1896, to advertise the event the two “flashy engines” travelled all over the state and were seen by thousands of people.

More than 40,000 folks showed up it took 33 over-crowded excursion trains to get them all there and they spent the day listening to orators, picnicking, visiting the concession booths, and waiting for the 4:00 p.m. start time.

Crush had ruled that spectators must stay 200 yards back from the track for safety, but the rule was hard to enforce as every one of those 40,000 people was determined to get as close as he or she could to be sure to not to miss anything. The officials finally got most of the crowd behind the line and at 5:00 p.m. Mr. Crush rode out astride a white horse [flesh and blood, not iron] raised his big white hat and “after a pause whipped it sharply down.” At this signal the two engines, behind each of which was a consist of six box cars, covered with advertising posters and all chained together as the link and pin couplers would likely break apart on impact, were off! Of course the crowd surged forward, cheering and ignoring the safety lines, and the engine whistles, which had been tied down, began to scream as the two lumbering giants picked up speed toward each other.

A Texas State historical marker near the site of event.

Frank Barnes described the actions of the two train crews  “We cut the reverse lever back to the second notch, stayed with the engine for 16 exhausts that’s four turns of the drivers  and jumped. Those were good engines. They really got up speed. From a standing start they made the mile in just two minutes. I figure they were going 50 miles an hour when they crashed.”

The Dallas Morning News later reported: “As the two trains roared toward each other, the smoke was pouring from their funnels in a great black streak. The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct each second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles blowing repeatedly.”

After “a thunderous, grinding crash” when the colorful engines met, “there was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half of a driving wheel.” Some spectators were killed and several others seriously injured as everyone fled in panic.

MKT wreck-trains arrived to pick up the big pieces most of the smaller chunks had been grabbed up by the crowd as souvenirs the injured were tended to, trains carried away the excited homeward-bound spectators, and the tents and concessions disappeared. The town of Crush, Texas, quickly disappeared.

The MKT railroad paid the damage claims, and in anticipation of bad publicity from the stunt, even though Crush had been given the go-ahead from his bosses and had been reassured by company engineers that the boilers wouldn’t explode, he was fired on the spot. There was publicity, lots and lots of it, so apparently in the belief that all publicity, even bad, is good, Crush was quickly rehired and worked for the Katy until retirement many years later.

Nowadays surplus engines are disposed of in a much tamer way through the use of cutting torches.

– Sam Moore

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