There is no evidence to suggest that a famous publicity stunt took place in the bucolic field south of the town of West, Texas, except a lonely historical marker. There are no other signs of the town of Crush, Texas. But, in 1896, the town of Crush was headline news.
That year, an employee of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (better known as the Katy Railroad) had an idea for a publicity stunt. He had noticed how people gathered around an accidental train wreck. People loved a good disaster. He concluded that surely a staged train wreck would draw a crowd.
The man convinced his employers that staging a collision between two trains would be a wonderful marketing opportunity. Special excursion trains could bring spectators at $2.00 a person. Paid advertising could be displayed on the trains. The event would get nationwide publicity. This would be the greatest publicity stunt of all time. Brilliant!
The man’s name was William George Crush [I am not lying]. He chose a crash site about three miles south of the town of West, TX. With Waco, Austin, Dallas and Temple not too far away, he knew he could draw the crowds there. The area had a good slope nearby that made a natural amphitheater. In that area, a second set of tracks was built alongside the regular tracks as a stage for the show to come.
Two steam engines that were about to be retired were readied for the event. Engine 999 was painted green with red trim, and Engine 1001 was painted red with green trim. Each engine pulled several stock cars with canvas advertising billboards for the Dallas Fair and Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Mr. Crush knew that with the size of the crowd he expected, he had to be ready to entertain (and to control) the people. He rented a Ringling Brothers tent for a dining hall, built concessions stands, had water provided by eight tank cars, built a jail for the inevitable pickpockets and thieves, and hired 200 lawmen to help keep the peace. For days before the event, the trains chugged on the track for practice runs so they could get the timing right.
September 18th, 1896 was the big day. Crowds started arriving early in the morning at the newly-named “Crush, Texas.” A newspaper account from the time said that the excursion trains were arriving at a rate of one every 12 minutes. Buggies, wagons, and horses brought spectators, too. By the time of the event, the crowd was estimated to be between 30,000-50,000 men, women, and children, all decked out in their Sunday best.
The trains were nose-to-nose on the track, their cow catchers touching. As the event was about to begin, the organizers realized that the spectators were too close to the track, and it took an hour to move them back. The trains slowly huffed and puffed as they backed apart until there was a distance of two miles between them. William George Crush, on horseback, raised his arm high and dropped it as a signal for the trains to begin.
The engineers started the 35 ton locomotives towards each other, full steam ahead. One engineer jumped off the train after about 500 yards, but the other didn’t jump off the train until his had gone half a mile. The crowd was thrilled by his daredevil antics.
At 60 mph, the trains collided with a deafening roar. Then, the unexpected happened (oh come on, I know you expected it). The boiler of one of the trains exploded with a second ear-splitting roar, sending a shower of metal debris into the crowd. Well, duh.
One newspaper reporter of the time said, “Words bend and break in an attempt to describe it.” A smokestack sailed through the air for a quarter of a mile. Yes, people got hurt. Two people were killed by the flying metal, many were wounded or crippled. A photographer from Waco was stuck in the eye by a flying metal bolt.
The event made the news, for sure. As any good catastrophe deserves a song, Scott Joplin, the ragtime musician, quickly wrote a tune. He called it “The Great Crush Collision March.” I can’t imagine what it would sound like.
George Crush was fired immediately. But, the name of the Katy railroad was on everyone’s lips across the nation. It did get the publicity that the railroad wanted. So, Mr. Crush was later rehired.
The town of Crush was dismantled as quickly as it appeared. Farmers in the area occasionally plow up bits of iron from the locomotives. Other than that, the Great Crash at Crush is rarely remembered or talked about today. It did have its fifteen minutes of fame.