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A Tragedy But Not an Accident: the Great Train Wreck of 1898

Before the TV show Jackass was ever aired, before Evel Knievel strapped on a motorcycle helmet, before Fonzie jumped over a record 14 trash cans, there was the tiny town of Crush, TX. It was the site of one of the grandest and most ill-conceived publicity stunts in human history: the intentional head-on collision of two locomotives. Let no one say that folks in the 19th century didn’t do know how to put on a good show.

It was 1898, and the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railroad Company, also known as the “Katy,” had a problem. Its 30-ton engines were being replaced with new, more powerful 40-ton models, and company official didn’t know what to do with the older units. A few were sold to logging companies, but the balance would have to be scrapped unless a way was found to generate revenue from them.

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Enter company official William G. Crush, who came up with what seemed like the perfect solution. He proposed plowing two of the machines into each other at breakneck speeds and inviting the public out to watch. The railroad big-wigs were skeptical at first, but at last saw the wisdom (?) in Crush’s plan. After all, stories about train wrecks sold plenty of newspapers at the time, so staging one on purpose was sure to draw a big crowd.

A Tragedy But Not an Accident: the Great Train Wreck of 1898

The Katy spared no expense in promoting the event. Newspapers spread the word, the date of September 15th was chosen, and a massive circus tent was set up to give shade to the spectators. Workers built a dedicated four-mile spur just for the occasion. It ran parallel to a stretch of company track that connected Hillsboro and Waco, TX. The exact location for the event was a spot that company promoters described as a “natural amphitheater.”

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Tickets sold for between $1 and $3.25 each, and Crush guessed that around 25,000 people would show up on the big day. By 4 pm on the 15th, the scheduled time for the crash, nearly twice as many had arrived. He pushed zero hour back to 5 pm, at which point the locomotives, each with six spare rail cars in tow, began charging down the track. When they reached two miles apart, the engineers opened the throttles full-tilt and leapt to safety. Modern researchers estimate that the locomotives were going at a combined speed of 90 mph when they hit.

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Company officials had enforced a minimum distance for spectators of 150 yards from the tracks, which they felt would allow for an ample safe zone. They were wrong. Upon colliding, the steam boilers in both engines exploded, spraying chunks of metal and super-heated water at least 300 yards in every direction.

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One spectator, a teenaged boy, was killed instantly when a section of brake chain tore through his head. Another onlooker died shortly after the event from a fractured skull caused by an iron projectile. Many more were injured; one man suffered crushed ribs when a piece of timber slammed into his chest. Others lost sight in one or both of their eyes, one had his ankle snapped by a flying hunk of metal, and others received severe bruises and burns.

Crush’s bosses fired him on the spot. However, the very next they had a change of heart and rehired him. Apparently, engineering the death and disfigurement of dozens of people was considered insufficient grounds for termination in those days.

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Public reaction was amazingly sedate. One newspaper, reflecting on the disaster, offered the following comment: “the vanity of inanimate pride was shown to be as empty and hollow as that of mere mortals.” I guess that was their way of saying, “Wow, that was some f***ed-up s***!”

One interesting story from the debacle centers on photographer Jervis Deane, who had journeyed from Waco to capture the event for posterity. A bolt struck him in the right eye and buried itself in his brain. He fell from the impact and was taken for dead. But moments later he got up, dusted himself off, and advised two of his assistants on how to develop the pictures he had taken.

Later on, doctors removed the piece of metal from his skull, and Deane kept right on taking photos for a living. He placed an ad in a local paper after his recovery, declaring, “Having gotten all the loose screws…out of my head, (I) am now ready for all photographic business.” I guess men were made of sterner stuff in those days.