I was watching a History Channel documentary the other night on the Chicago Union Stock Yards.
In 1848, when Chicago was only a hub for transporting livestock from the West to the rest of the country, small stockyards such as Lake Shore Yard and Cottage Grove Yard, were scattered throughout the city along various rail lines.
As the railroads expanded westward, Chicago evolved into a large railroad center. With the increase in the number of trainloads of livestock, the need for a centralized stock center became obvious.
In 1864, a consortium of nine railroad companies acquired three hundred and twenty acres of swampland south west of The Loop, and the Chicago Union Stock Yards was born.
By 1890 the yards were handling more than nine million cows, pigs and sheep a year. That’s a lot of hooves!
But I wanted to know who took care of all those critters.
Before the creation of the stock yards, tavern owners provided pastures and care for cattle herds waiting to be sold. Eventually they built 2300 livestock pens on the 375-acre site.
[They also built hotels, saloons, restaurants, and offices for merchants and brokers, but that’s another blog.]
My next question: who moved all those animals around? I had visions of cowboys working in downtown Chicago. [No, not THAT kind of Cowboy!]
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a storyline there, after all. The cowboys only moved the doggies as far as Dodge City, Kansas City, and all the other termini of the cattle drives.
In the early days of the Stock Yard, drovers herded cattle, hogs, and sheep down two wide thoroughfares from the railroad cars to the pens. Then the railroad consortium built more rail lines, bringing the livestock right to the holding pens—and removing the need for the drovers.
It’s a shame really. A thousand head of longhorns mooing their way down Michigan Avenue ahead of a couple of heart-stopping cowboys would have been entertaining.
It started as a publicity stunt. Crash two locomotives together and sell tickets. It had been done in Ohio to the cheers of delighted spectators.
William G. Crush, agent for The Missouri-Kansas-Texas “Katy” (MKT) Railroad knew that the public was fascinated by train wrecks. People would travel from miles away just to get a look at the twisted metal and destruction, the victims scalded by the explosion of the engine’s steam boiler.
[This is Mr. Crush as sketched for the Galveston Daily News on September 16, 1896.]
So, William pitched an idea to Katy Railroad officials: intentionally crash two trains in full view of spectators. It had been done successfully a few months earlier in Ohio, to the delight of spectators.
Needless to say, his superiors loved the idea.
The town of Crush, Texas, complete with a depot, was constructed just for the event. A special branch line of tracks was laid about 4 miles outside of the town of West, Texas. Wells were dug, water was run, food and drinks were available for purchase, and a huge tent was borrowed from Barnum & Bailey Circus to serve as a grandstand and protect the elite guests from the weather and the common spectators.
Rather than charge admission to the event, the railroad decided to make the event free—and charge $2 round-trip for a ride to site of the crash.
Everything was ready when dawn came on September 15, 1896. The train engines, #999 and #1001 were painted bright green and bright red, respectively. Both had been stripped down to ensure nothing went wrong. Six cars were attached to each engine to enhance the crash.
The organizers expected around 20,000 spectators to show up and planned accordingly. By the time the event started, more than twice that number jammed the small valley. Every inch of ground was jammed with people waiting to see two trains smash each other into scrap metal. A carnival atmosphere prevailed, complete with medicine shows, game booths and souvenir stands.
The men, women and children were given until late afternoon to listen to speeches and spend their money.
At 5pm, the two trains nosed together as if shaking hands and posed for pictures. They then backed up the low hills to opposite ends of the four mile track, and at ten minutes after 5pm, as Mr. Crush sat on horseback and waved a white hat as a signal, the engineers opened the steam to the predetermined setting and put the trains into motion before jumping off.
I’ll let the reporter for The Dallas Morning News describe what happened:
“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. … They rolled down at a frightful rate of speed to within a quarter of a mile of each other. Nearer and nearer as they approached the fatal meeting place the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder …
“Now they were within ten feet of each other, the bright red and green paint on the engines and the gaudy advertisements on the cars showing clear and distinct in the glaring sun.
“A crash, a sound of timbers rent and torn, and then a shower of splinters.
“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 …
“All that remained of the two engines and twelve cars was a smoking mass of fractured metal and kindling wood, except one car on the rear of each train, which had been left untouched. The engines had both been completely telescoped, and contrary to experience in such cases, instead of rising in the air from the force of the blow, were just flattened out. There was nothing about the cars big enough to save except pieces of wood, which were eagerly seized upon and carried home as souvenirs.”
The plan was for the trains to reach approximately 10mph by the time they met in the middle. Instead, they were traveling closer to 45mph. The impact sent shrapnel flying more than 100 feet into the air—and into the crowd. Miraculously, considering the size of the crowd only three people were killed.
William Crush was fired the evening of the crash, but Katy Railroad officials rehired him the very next day, and he worked for the company until he retired.
The “Crash at Crush” was immortalized by famed Texas ragtime composer Scott Joplin in his march, “The Great Crush Collision March.” Click here to listen to the music – complete with crash and scream: