One hundred twenty years ago today, Crush, Texas was one of the biggest cities in the state. Never heard of it? That’s because it was made up, created and gone in a day. It was the site for a publicity stunt that would soon be called the “duel of iron monsters."
The year is 1896 and Texas – much like the rest of the U.S. at this time – is coming off the heels of an economic downturn. Money is tight and jobs are hard to come by. So for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad – better known by its nickname, The Katy – coming up with a creative marketing ploy to spur passenger revenue was a bit tricky.
That’s where William George Crush comes in. He was a passenger agent for the Katy and he had an idea – something that would bring publicity to the railroad.
“So he got two locomotives, put them facing each other and brought them together in a staged collision.”
Robert Gallamore, is the co-author of "American Railroads: Decline and renaissance in the 20th century." He says at the time that Crush is pitching this publicity stunt, the railroad industry is already a dominant force in the country and the Katy is growing.
“In this case, what was it, the Katy Railroad – the Missouri Kansas Texas railroad had expanded from its base in St. Louis and Parsons, Kansas and places like that," Gallamore says. "It was actually the first railroad to build through the Indian Territory, I believe it was still called."
Not only is the industry well established at this time but it’s also really competitive. In part, that’s what led to Crush’s outlandish pitch – he wanted something that stood out. The only concern: would the trains’ boilers burst upon impact. All but one of the engineers that were asked said no. And that was enough for the Katy board members and Crush. Soon, word of the event was in headlines across the state and flyers were posted along the Katy railway, encouraging riders to take a $2 round trip to see the spectacle. And when it came time for the crash, Stephen Sloan says an estimated 40,000 people descended upon a pop-up town called Crush, Texas – a site just 15 miles north of Waco, near the town of West. Sloan is a historian and director of the Baylor Institute for Oral history.
“Well there’s kind of a surreal-ness with it," Sloan says. "When you first hear the story, to imagine this happened, to imagine that in this middle-of-nowhere, for a day, what would’ve even the second largest city in Texas popped up to see this event that still seems hard to imagine that it actually occurred.”
At this fictional town, a 3-mile stretch of track was set up, adjacent to the Katy railway that ran through the area. On one end was a 35-ton locomotive, engine No. 999. It had a bright green body with red trimming. And on the other side of the track was another 35-ton locomotive, No. 1001. It’s colors the reverse of its competition – bright red and trimmed in green. Each train had six boxcars attached.
For the spectators, Crush erected a 2,100-foot station platform and a special grand stand for VIPs. An onsite restaurant was covered in a tent that Crush borrowed from his friend, P.T. Barnum. There were even lemonade stands, carnival games and sideshows to help people pass time. But Sloan says, no one really understood the gravity of the spectacle.
“We’re not that far removed from an age where the fastest you could travel was via horse, and the most work you could do would be horse power," Sloan says. "So to see, dramatically – even in the space of a couple generations – what happened in the 19th century, I don’t think its unusual that they would underestimate how destructive something like this could’ve been."
Texas-born ragtime musician Scott Joplin is believed to have been at the event, because he immortalized just what happened with his composition “The Great Crush Collision March”.
When 4 o'clock hits, the trains begin their iron joust. Train personnel get the trains going full throttle, jumping off once the locomotive hits about 10 miles per hour. Soon, the trains are picking up steam, hurling towards each other at 50 miles per hour, getting closer and closer until they finally hit.
Ron Miller, a physicist and instructor at Texas State Technical College, says that when the collision happened - given everything we know like mass and speed - the trains hit with a force of impact ranging from 1 to 2 million pounds of force. The box cars created additional waves of force.
"If you hit a baseball with a bat, the force goes extremely high for a very short period of time and the drops off and the baseball runs away. What is happening here is that you get a secondary crash due to the fact that the first box catches up."
When the trains collided, the Katy's one concern came true: the boilers burst, sending shrapnel into the crowd. At least two people died, a Waco-based photographer lost his eye and screws and bolts were lodged in his head, and the crowd rushed to the smoldering pile of debris looking to get souvenirs, not realizing this would burn their hands. Crush was fired immediately, but the backlash wasn’t as bad as Katy officials had expected, and business – by most accounts – increased. Crush was shortly re-hired.
His stunt had worked, but it hasn’t been repeated since.