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The steam engines raced toward each other at a combined speed of over 90 miles per hour. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2005)

The Great Texas Train Crash at Crush

It was to be a spectacular 19th Century publicity stunt with a carefree carnival mood. It ended in explosions, flying metal and death.

Nobody will ever know what inspired that idea in William G. Crush's mind. By all accounts he was a conservative man and a solid citizen not given to crazy ideas. Perhaps he was inspired by a similar spectacle done several months before near Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe the idea occurred to him just because his company couldn't figure out how to get rid of some obsolete locomotives.

Crush worked as a passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, commonly referred to as the "Katy" line. In the 1890's the Katy started to replace their 30-ton steam engines with larger, more advanced 60-ton units. This left almost 50 locomotives for which the railroad had no use. Some were sold to logging camps. Others found their way to gravel companies. Still there were plenty left.

One of composer Scott Joplin's earliest works was a march composed for the occasion.

Crush's proposal was to take two of the obsolete locomotives and put them on a track facing each other a couple of miles apart. The crews would then fire the engines up, get them moving and jump off. The trains would race toward each other, picking up speed, until they met in a fiery and spectacular crash. The railroad would charge nothing to view the man-made disaster, but would profit from tickets sold for special excursion trains running to the site.

The company accepted his recommendation and put Crush in charge of the project. Three engines were chosen to be prepared for the crash. Number 999 was repainted green with red trim and number 1001 was painted red with green trim. Each was gone over carefully so that 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," recalled Frank Barnes who was a member of one of the locomotive crews. The third engine was to be held in reserve should one of the other two fail.

Drumming Up Business

Before the crash the engines took a tour to drum up business. "We had a good time before the wreck, though," remembered Barnes. "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.

The trains were pulled together for pictures before the crash.

A spot was chosen in McLennan County, Texas, just 15 miles north of Waco near one of Katy's mainlines to be the crash site. Here, in a natural amphitheater formed by three hills, four miles of track were laid and a grandstand set up for honored guests. The Katy expected a large crowd, so two wells were drilled at the site and pipes run to several hundred faucets. A large tent, borrowed from the Ringling Brother's circus, was set up to serve food. A midway appeared featuring medicine shows and games. Politicians decided to take advantage of the crowd by giving speeches.

The organizers expected between 20,000 and 25,000 people and built a special railway station at the site for the arriving passengers. A sign there proclaimed the station as "Crush, Texas." On the day of the event, September 15, 1896, people started arriving in droves. The special trains taking people to the event were so full that some brave souls rode on the roofs of the cars. The crowd swelled to between 30,000 and 40,000 people and Crush - for a few hours - became the second largest town in the state.

Safety Concerns

While the crowds gathered the engine crews started checking their trains over. Speed tests were conducted on each to help predict the exact point of collision. To avoid having one of engines get away and run wild onto the mainline, the rails connecting the collision spur track with the mainline were removed. Since the couplers used in those days were of the unreliable link and pin variety, the cars were chained together so they would not come apart during impact.

A photo showing the Southern and Pacific railroad yard after a locomotive's boiler exploded in 1912.

One concern was whether each of the engine's boilers would hold up under the stress of the crash. Steam engines use a large, heavy metal pressure tank called a boiler to contain water heated to the boiling point by a fire fueled by coal, wood or oil. At the boiling point some of the water turns to steam. Since steam takes up 1675 times as much volume as the water it came from this expansion creates a tremendous pressure inside the boiler. The high pressure steam is transferred through pipes to the cylinders and pistons connected to the engine's driving wheels. The high pressure steam can then move the pistons, making the locomotive go.

Should a boiler rupture under pressure the result would be almost exactly like a large bomb being set off. In 1865 the steamship The Sultana suffered a boiler explosion while traveling north on the Mississippi. The ship was packed with an unknown number of union soldiers returning from the war and an estimated 1,700 people died, either directly from the explosion or from drowning as the ship sank. Up until that time it was the largest loss of life in the history of the United States as the result of a maritime accident.

In 1912 a steam locomotive being readied for a run at the Southern Pacific Roundhouse in San Antonio had its boiler rupture for unknown reasons. The resulting explosion leveled most of the buildings in the railroad yard and much of the surrounding neighborhood. A house and its owner seven blocks away were crushed by the front end of the locomotive as it fell from the sky. An estimated 40 people were killed and another 50 injured.

The trains at the moment of the impact.

It was clear that if one or both of the boilers were to explode during the collision the event might be too dangerous to stage. Crush had gone to the Katy's engineers and was assured that the boilers on the engines were designed to resist ruptures even in the event of a high-speed crash and it would be virtually impossible for them to explode. Reassured, Crush went ahead with the event, though except for reporters and honored guests, spectators were to be kept back a minimum of 100 yards from the track.

The Crash

The crowed grew and grew all day and some three hundred policemen were brought in to keep them in order. At 5 PM, one hour late, the two trains were brought together at the expected point of collision so that photographs could be taken. Then they were slowly backed up the track to their starting locations. When all in readiness Crush, who had been overseeing the event from the back of a white horse, waved his hat and the crews in the locomotives threw the throttles to full. "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," recalled Barnes. "Those were good engines. They really got up speed."

The resulting explosion sent deadly chunks of metal into the crowd.

The engines, pulling only six cars each, raced toward each other. By the time they closed the distance, which took just two minutes, they were going at an estimated 45 miles per hour. "The smoke was pouring from their funnels in a great black streak and the popping of the steam could be distinctly heard for the distance of a mile," reported The Dallas Morning News. "The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone. Nearer and nearer they came, the whistles of each blowing repeatedly and the torpedoes which had been placed on the track exploding in almost a continuous round like the rattle of musketry."

The Deadly Explosion

The trains hit very near to the expected spot. What was unexpected was that the boilers on both locomotives exploded like twin bombs. "There was just a swift instance of silence, and then as if controlled by a single impulse both boilers exploded simultaneously 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..." reported The News. The flying metal had a deadly effect. People ran in terror. Two young men and a woman were killed. Six other people were seriously injured. One of the official photographers lost an eye. The trains themselves were completely destroyed, except for their last cars, which remained virtually untouched. After the crowd recovered from the blast, it swarmed over the wreckage to find souvenirs.

Nobody knows why the boilers exploded. Afterward, railroad officials speculated that each train traveling 45 miles per hour and hitting head on was the same effect as if a single train traveling 90 miles per hour had hit a solid wall. They suggested this was a much greater impact than they had expected, causing the explosion. Physics shows that this is faulty reasoning, however. The real effect was no more than a single train hitting a wall at 45 miles per hour, perhaps even less. In any case the stunt, expected to generate good will for the railroad, backfired. William Crush was fired that very evening. Proving that, at least in the 19th century, there is no such thing as bad publicity; he was rehired the next day and worked for the company until he retired. The railroad quickly paid any claims against it and the memory of the crash at Crush slowly faded.

Despite the disastrous results of the crash at Crush, other railroads continued to stage locomotive collisions in the years to come. Fortunately no more boiler explosions followed these dangerous stunts.

Despite the disaster at Crush, other locomotive collisions were staged in the years that would follow. Here is footage from a collision in 1913. Fortunately, unlike in 1896, the boilers did not fail.

It is unknown if famed ragtime composer Scott Joplin was in the crowd that day, but we do know he wrote a march for the event, The Great Crush Collision, immortalizing the man-made disaster in music.

 

 

 

 


A Partial Bibliography

Retired Katy Engineer Tells of Wreck at Crush by Amy Welborn, Katy Employee's Magazine, (http://home.flash.net/~cymartin/crossxroads/68crush.htm), 1950.

The Crash at Crush by Mary G. Ramos, Texas Almanac, 1992-1993.

The Crash at Crush: Famous Duel of the Iron Monsters by E.L.Connally, Texan Press, 1960.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2005. All Rights Reserved.

 

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