The Crash at “Crush”


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. george-crush-sept-16-1896-galveston-daily-news1Crush, 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 tTrains at Crush Texasrack, 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.

Trains at Crush Texas impact

“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 traCrash at Crush Texas souvenir huntersin, 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:

It was a publicity stunt that will never be attempted again – but the stories remain, told over and over by those who were there for the Crash at Crush.


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27 thoughts on “The Crash at “Crush””

  1. Hi Tracy, good heavens, I had no idea. I think Mr. Crush was very aptly named. There’s no limit to the stupid things emerging from the human mind, is there, or to morbid fascination.

    I remember reading somewhere that fashionable people would park themselves with a picnic lunch on bluffs overlooking Civil war battles, to watch. My stomach turns just thinking about it.

    Very enjoyable post today, Tracy. oxoxoxox

  2. Good morning, Tracy, what a story….and stunt!! It reminds me of the popularity of the monster truck shows that pack arenas and fairgrounds. Amazing. I’ve never heard of this before.


  3. Hi Tracy,
    What a story! I’d never heard of this either. Mr. Crush had a morbid imagination. Why are we fascinated by such destruction? It’s still happens today. That’s why action movies are so popular. I’ll take a love story any day.

  4. Morning, Tanya.

    I’ve read that about the picnics overlooking the battles as well. In fact, in one of the battles outside Washington, reinforcements for the Union Troups couldn’t get through because of all the carriages blocking the road–running away from the scene when the cannon shots got too close.

  5. Linda, in my mind it’s like the fascination with police chases on LA freeways. I don’t understand it, but a lot of viewers will stay glued to the coverage for hours. And action flicks? Give me a love story with a hea!

  6. Tracy, what a tale! I’m sure it created quite a spectacle. I find it a bit odd that people were, and still are, so fascinated by the gruesome. Hangings were immensely popular and people came from all around to watch. I wonder why. Is it because they had so few things that helped them escape the drudgery of hard work? Must be. This reminds me of a quote (not sure who the author is) but it goes something like this: People will come from miles around to watch someone burn. And they did during the time when they burned witches at the stake. Just strange.

    Hope you have a great day!

    Linda B.

  7. Boy – this story says something about mankind’s penchant for the morbidly fascinating! To think, three people died just because they wanted to view a train wreck.

  8. Morning, Linda.
    I think they are fascinated by the gruesome because it tells them someone has it worse than them. Also they have a story to tell to their friends that didn’t witness the tragedy.

  9. Winnie, the three deaths were the least of it. The schrapnel and boiling water from those two giant boilers would have scalded and injured dozens. Those who wanted to be close to the action got more than they bargained for, I’m sure.

  10. Wow, Tracy, where did you find this?
    What a fascinating and strange deal. What did it cost to destroy two engines and all those cars? How could it have ever paid for itself?

    Three people were killed?

    40 miles per hour?

    This is what I love about Petticoats and Pistols, the strange, interesting tidbits of history that pop up when we’re researching our books. I love it.

    They built the TOWN for this sole purpose, laid the track?

    It all amazes me. It’s not much different than demo derby, is it?

  11. A friend who loves Texas History and trains put me onto the story. The trains collided at more than 90 miles an hour if both were going 45. You know, I didn’t see any summation of the cost, but they had to have made a bundle on the train tickets alone. 53 train loads of people were brought in at $2 a person. 40,000 spectators. All the concessions, food, etc. Even after the Katy Railroad paid out the damage settlements, which the articles said was done very quickly, it still would have been a money-making project.

  12. Hi Tracy – Oh, I didn’t know this either, but talk about STUPID! Mr Crush should have been put in jail for murder. But its a fascinating story! Great pics to go along with it!

  13. Hi Tracy – Oh, I didn’t know this either, but talk about STUPID! Mr Crush should have been put in jail for murder. But its a fascinating story! Great pics to go along with it!

  14. I agree with Charlene about Crush being arrested for the deaths of those people.

    And yet with satellite coverage in its ability to bring all sorts of stuff into our homes sometimes I feel a little like these spectators. When the news puts on graphic, horrible violent stories the rating soar….!

    Is it in our human nature? Does anyone else feel like this sometimes?


  15. Don’t blame Mr. Crush. Engineers assured him the boilers wouldn’t explode–and they wouldn’t have if the trains had been going 10mph as predicted. And who’s to say those killed weren’t crowding closer to the tracks than they were supposed to. Something about taking a risk seems to appeal to a lot of people.

    To me it’s one of those situations where one thing going wrong wouldn’t have caused this; it took several things.

  16. Fascinating, Tracy. Don’t you think in some respects that our modern TV resembles the Roman Collesium — can’t spell that word.


  17. Wow what a stupid stunt… the reporter’s words were something to read… thanks for sharing! 😀

  18. Karen, I think of this too, that we have entertainment that is way too close to feeding people to the lions. We don’t yet actually feed them in, but think of the public hangings they used to have. It was a spectator sport.

    Also, have you ever watched The World’s Biggest Loser? They have people standing in their underwear for all to see on national television.

    Excuse me, but isn’t this a classic recurring NIGHTMARE that you will be caught in your underwear in front of a crowd? Adn now we have that nightmare as a TV SHOW?

    What next? The one where you’re late to class on the last day of the semester and can’t find your classroom to take the final test??? Could that be a TV Show???

    Wait a minute, what’s the premise of LOST???

  19. Or, it’s your wedding day and they are waiting for you to walk and you realize you haven’t washed your hair or put your make-up on!

    Actually, I agree with you Tracy. I’m sure it was innocently done and Mr. Crush was just as upset as everyone else.

    I’m way too hot headed most the time…sorry!

  20. Karen, that’s a good comparison.

    Mary, I’m with you RE Biggest Loser. It would definitely be a nightmare for me. 🙂

    Caroline, no worries. He may not have been all that innocent, but I tend to think the best of people. We’re good foils for each other. lol

  21. I can not imange being present for this crash. But i guess when we use the reference “It’s just like watching a train wreck”, we now now were it came from. Thanks for the history lesson..

  22. Interesting post, Tracy. People’s morbid curiosity never fails to surprise me. It shouldn’t considering all the things we hear about. There is always someone out there ready to take advantage of it and make some money. All things considered, a staged train wreck is better than a hanging. Sad to think they were both spectator sports.

  23. You’re welcome, Kathleen. 🙂

    Jennie, I don’t know, but that kind of disaster certainly seems to draw most folks, doesn’t it?

    Patricia, that’s what I found most interesting – the carnival atmosphere, the medicine shows and game booths… It must have been quite an outing right up to the point of impact.

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