In 1896, someone in Texas decided it would be a great idea to promote their small regional railroad by staging a collision between two trains. If there is one thing nineteenth-century Americans loved, it was looking at the wreckage of railroad disasters. Crowds gathered after wrecks to view grisly remains, mourn as a community and offer amateur investigative work on the cause of the calamity. On paper, this event was a perfect plan – a controlled collision that promised to both enrich the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway and give the excursionists a exciting break from the mundanity of their lives.
An estimated 30 to 60 thousand people, descended on Crush, Texas, a small town created specifically for this event, to watch the crash. The organizers even decorated the trains with bright colors and gave each a giant face. The engines collided as planned, and the frenzied crowd rushed forward to try to claim souvenirs from the wreckage. As a newspaper account related “the excitement of the people became so intense that it was impossible to exercise any control of them whatever, and they almost rushed on the engines before they came together.” As the crowd picked through the twisted ruins, the boiler exploded, sending fragments of metal into the crowd. Four were killed, included a young lady who was decapitated and a photographer killed by a flying bolt, and many others were injured. The twenty thousand dollars spent by the railroad to put on the wreck ended up paling in comparison to the $200,000 spent as indemnity for the injured and killed spectators. The company fired the man in charge of the mess, but quietly rehired him after the press attention died down.
This spectacle so inspired Scott Joplin that he wrote a song about it, a jaunty ragtime number. Nothing against jaunty ragtime numbers, but this is pretty much a prime example of how the story behind the train song can be a lot more compelling than the song itself. The song does do a nice job of capturing the tension of the moment and what I am guessing is the crash itself, somewhere around the 3 minute mark.
I stumbled into this bizarre story when I happened upon this newspaper article about the Crush, in an Alabama paper, but if you would like to know more about the Crash at Crush, someone at the Baylor Library wrote up a nice history of the event. This didn’t quite make it into the dissertation, but it was certainly close…