The Crash at Crush: An Organized Train Wreck, Sept.1896
The temporary city of "Crush" became the second-largest city in Texas on September 15th, 1896. The next day, the city was gone. On that fateful day in September, between 30,000 and 40,000 people traveled to the fake town of Crush to witness a train wreck--a planned event billed as the "Crash at Crush." The temporary town and site of the crash was located near this historic marker in the present-day of city of West. Because so many people paid to witness the locomotive wreck, this event became one of the most successful publicity stunts of all time. William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad (M. K. & T. Railroad, or the “Katy” railroad), planned the event in 1895. He and others believed correctly that if they promoted the event properly, tens of thousands would purchase tickets to travel on the Katy railroad to witness the "free" event. Vendors eagerly purchased train tickets as well, providing food and drinks for the multitude as they waited for the spectacle. Advertising for the event started months in advance, and Crush sold train tickets to transport spectators on Katy trains. During the summer of 1896, newspapers, bulletins, and circulars advertised the so-called “Monster Crash,” building a massive following and widespread anticipation. In addition to the spectators, politicians and businessmen flocked to the scene of the planned crash and set up public speaking stages, temporary shops, and carnival attractions. As two old locomotives traveled toward one another on a specially built track, disaster struck. Despite building a special track and planning for the event, two spectators were killed and many more were injured because both boilers exploded when the two locomotives collided.
Backstory and Context
History Leading Up to the Event
Two significant factors in late 19th-century society led William Crush to conceive the idea of a publicized train wreck. First, daily and syndicated newspapers across the country reported on deadly railroad mishaps, which arguably garnered a nationwide, grotesque fascination with the spectacular disaster.
Second, in the 1890s, the M. K. & T. Railroad was figuring out what to do with its nearly obsolete, 30-ton steam locomotives. M. K. & T. sold some to lumber yards and gravel pits, but many were destined to the scrap yard. Crush combined these two elements and felt the Katy railroad could capitalize on a publicized train wreck.
Crush chose two locomotives for the event: the Old No. 999 and the Old No. 1001. In the months leading up to the event, amidst newspaper articles and advertisements, the locomotives toured the state. Furthermore, Katy officials decided they would not charge for the event and told food concession contractors to sell at reasonable prices. This was a clever ploy to garner attention and sell train tickets to transport the thousands of visitors to the crash site 15 miles north of Waco.
Starting in September, nearly 500 workers built a special four-mile track as well as grandstands for “honored guests,” public speaker stands, telegraph offices, a reporter stand, and a bandstand. There was even a restaurant within a borrowed Ringling Brothers circus tent, a carnival complete with game booths and medicine shows, and a 2,100-foot-long depot that informed passengers of their arrival in “Crush, Texas.”
September 15th, 1896
On September 15th around 3:00 p.m., around 40,000 people were on the grounds of the crash site, where they picnicked, listened to political speeches, and awaited the “Monster Crash.” Spectators had to stand 200 yards away for a good view of the crash, and only the journalists were allowed to be within 100 yards.
Near 5:00 p.m., the Old No. 999 and Old No. 1001 locomotives with six cars each backed to opposite ends of the four-mile track. William Crush trotted along the center of the track on a white horse and raised his hat in the air.
The trains started moving at Crush’s signal. After pushing the throttle to full speed, the crews leaped from the trains. Each train was moving about 50 mph near the impact point, and upon collision, the boilers in both trains unexpectedly exploded and sent scraps of metal flying like missiles.
Two people died in the collision and several others were severely injured, but after the dust settled, thousands of spectators flocked to the scene to gather souvenirs and to take part in photographs.
William Crush was immediately fired from the M. K. & T. Railroad. He was, however, rehired the following day due to the massive public attention he brought to the Katy railroad. The Katy Railroad Company continued to prosper during the first half of the 20th century.