This edition of The Campfire Chronicle is a little difficult to categorize, but basically I am thinking that we need to file it under the general category of “WHAT THE HECK WERE THEY THINKING?” This is one of those topics that reads like it must be satire, but it isn’t. In fact, whoever first said that truth is stranger than fiction must have known about a man named William George Crush who is attributed with one of the most disastrous publicity stunts of all time. This story is proof that people have been coming up with misguided ideas for (at least) 109 years longer than YouTube has been in existence.
Train of Thought
William George Crush was the General Passage Agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (aka the Katy Railroad), but his own personal brand of twisted genius was wasted in that job. When Crush heard about the crowds of people that were attracted to the scene of a horrific train wreck in the Northeast, this P.T. Barnum wannabe had an idea. To paraphrase from my favorite Christmas stealing Grinch, “Then he got an idea! An awful idea! George Crush got a wonderful, awful idea!” He just needed to get his bosses at the Katy Railroad to go along with it.
So, Crush set about the business of convincing the big mucky mucks that they should let him stage a train wreck—a real, honest-to-goodness, crash, bang, boom, train wreck! Either the railroad officials had been breathing in too many steam engine fumes or Crush was the most persuasive man on the planet, but either way, they went along with one of the most hare-brained schemes of all time. Crush got the green light to stage the head-on collision of two locomotives running at full speed. They reasoned, what could possibly go wrong?
The date was set for September 15, 1896. A location about fifteen miles north of Waco, Texas was selected, and a makeshift town was even set up at the site and given the name of Crush. For months, the town’s namesake and his railroad cronies publicized the heck out of the event.
Admission was free, but Crush still managed to turn the event into a gravy train. For a mere $2.00 – – that’s $50.00 in today’s money – – a person could buy a round-trip ticket on the Katy Railroad from anywhere on the Katy line to see the most exciting spectacle Central Texas had ever produced. He also transformed the open fields of Crush, Texas into a veritable carnival. There were lemonade stands, medicine shows, games, cigar stands, sideshows, and a circus tent with a restaurant. To prevent people from keeling over in the late summer sun, there were eight tank cars filled with drinking water. I’m not sure if Crush charged for the H2O, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was the first person ever to market that free commodity.
Full Steam Ahead
On the big day, thousands of thrill seekers arrived by horse and buggy, but that was nothing compared to the number of people who arrived by train. All told, more than 40,000 spectators crowded into the area near the four-mile train track that had been laid for the main event. More than two hundred specially deputized constables maintained law and order. Drunkards and thieves were thrown in a temporary hoosegow in the newly-formed town of Crush..
When it was time for the orchestrated train wreck, general spectators stood far back on a hill. They weren’t allowed within two hundred yards of the track. Safety first! Journalists were allowed to view from a position a little closer to the action.
Two locomotives—one green and one red—each pulling six cars met at the collision point for a photo op. The cars were plastered with advertisements because George Crush wasn’t one to let an opportunity to make a penny slip through his fingers. When it was time, the trains were backed up to their starting positions. Crush rode out on a white horse and threw down a white hat as a signal for the sacrificial lambs, er trains, to start their run. The crews jumped from their trains and ran like the dickens to get to safety. I’m a little bit surprised that Crush hadn’t instructed them to strap pillows to their chests and ride it out! Shoot! He could have sold tickets to ride on the trains!
Each train reached a speed of 50mph before…KAPOW!
The trains collided. Well, that had been the general plan, but no one had anticipated that the boiler on each train would explode on impact. Debris flew everywhere, proving that two hundred yards was not far enough to ensure the safety of spectators. If only there had been some inkling, a little clue perhaps, that an intentional train wreck attended by 40,000 people in an exposed field in Texas was nothing more than just a half-baked idea! Oh, the best laid plans of mice and morons often go awry!
Three people were killed and many were injured when shards of metal and wood flew through the air like industrial shrapnel. Photojournalist, Jarvis Deane, lost an eye due to a flying bolt. Ever the professional, Deane passed off his camera to a companion and said to keep snapping.
Go Off the Rails
Boy, you make one little mistake…and BAM! Those bigwigs at the Katy Railroad were not patting George Crush on the back and giving him attaboys (at least not publically). You may not believe this, but they had the audacity to fire the great visionary on the evening of the crash. Yes, Crush found himself on the wrong side of the tracks. . .but only for a moment.
Shockingly, the event received almost no negative press. It’s amazing what people could get away with in the days before social media, late night talk show hosts and 24-hour news channels. Essentially, most of the people who were not killed that day were just happy to have witnessed the fiasco. When the railroad execs saw which way public sentiment was leaning, they rehired George Crush the day after they had fired him. Rumor has it that George Crush may have even received a bonus.
The injured parties and people who had lost a relative that day were not quite so forgiving. Some received cash payments. Some were refunded the $2 they had spent on railway fare to get to Crush, Texas in the first place. Others received lifetime passes on the great Katy Railroad.
End of the Line
George Crush continued to work for the Katy Railroad until his retirement. The “town” of Crush, Texas lasted for less time than George Crush’s unemployment. Crush, Texas no longer exists, but you can visit the spot in what is now West, Texas.
Scott Joplin, a Texas native and the “King of Ragtime” music, composed “Great Crush Collision March” inspired by the day’s events. It’s a catchy little ditty, but it never gained the notoriety of Joplin’s “The Entertainer” or “Maple Leaf Rag.” It’s fitting that an obscure moment in history has an obscure song to commemorate it.
The next time you find yourself shaking your head at the lunacy in this world, just remember the crash at Crush and know that there is nothing new under the sun. Here’s an interesting video with documentary footage of the actual event. . .I think that you will enjoy it!