I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
“Train wreck” is a phrase used to describe a massive failure and it’s also something that you cannot avert your eyes from. More than a century ago, clever hucksters spotted the potential for profit in getting two steam locomotives to smash into each other and charging people to watch the spectacle.
The Train Crash in Crush
One of the earliest organized head-on train collisions was the “Crash in Crush” a spectacular event that took place near Waco, Texas in September 1896.
A temporary “town” was put up and named after the man who dreamed up the idea for the collision, William Crush. Entrance to the venue was free but to get there people had to take a train. The fare was $2 from anywhere in Texas. There was a Ringling Brothers circus tent and a grandstand was erected.
Forty thousand people showed up, making Crush, temporarily, the second largest community in Texas.
The locomotives were backed up to their starting points about four miles apart. The engineers opened their regulators to a pre-arranged position and then jumped clear. By the time they reached the collision point in front of the grandstand the two engines were doing about 45 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, the organizers failed to anticipate that the boilers, pressurized by steam, might not survive the crash. The resulting explosion showered the spectators with shrapnel including a significant piece of a driving wheel. A couple of people died and dozens were injured.
Great Crush Collision March, Scott Joplin.
Train Wrecks Pull in the Crowds
Except for the dead and injured and their families, the Crush crash was immensely popular, drawing the biggest single crowd in the history of Texas at the time. Carnival operators elsewhere in the U.S. soon latched on to the potential and started putting on similar spectaculars without, it was hoped, the bloodshed.
Aging locomotives could be picked up for little money and there was a willing throng ready to buy tickets to watch the calamity.
The California State Fair held its first staged crash in 1913 and a film crew was on hand to record the collision. Writing for The San Francisco Bee, Dixie Reed noted “Fairgoers likely held their breath as two smoke-belching locomotives barrelled toward each other at 25 mph and … kaboom! Onlookers were then allowed to walk up and inspect the considerable damage.”
Historian Carson Hendricks says the fair put on similar crashes for five years until “Southern Pacific said they had to stop because of a shortage of metal during World War I. But, I think they were just running out of trains.”
Staged Train Crashes not Always Successful
In 1913, a couple of entrepreneurs in Chattanooga decided to put on a splendid crash to entertain the folks attending a reunion of the Grand Army of the Republic, veterans of the Civil War.
Harmon Jolley recalled the occasion in The Chattanoogan: “With an estimated investment of $10,000, the promoters made final preparations. There would be a mile or more of new rail, a new grandstand that could seat at least 25,000 people, and a canvas wall to limit the view to the paying public.”
The big day arrived and with it buckets of rain. Only 4,000 drenched spectators showed up and the Chattanooga Times declared the affair “A scenic success,” but a financial disaster for the promoters.
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Fundamentalism and Evolution Meet on the Tracks
Monetary gain does not appear to have been the motive behind a collision put on in “Monkeyville” in 1925. This was the time of the Scopes trial and a train wreck was staged “to typify clash in the USA between adherents of Bible and those of Darwin.” That somewhat ungrammatical quote is from the opening sequence of a film of the crash.
One train was labelled “Fundamentalism” and the other “Evolution.” Both ended up in a twisted heap of tangled metal resolving nothing.
Perhaps the point was to illustrate something about immovable forces and irresistible objects for that clash of ideas continues today.
Staged Train Collisions Still Have Entertainment Value
Lest modern sophisticates think themselves above such crude spectacles (monster truck rally anybody?), train crashes are still deliberately organized today; their purpose is to improve safety.
In 2007, police organized a collision between a train and a car on a level crossing to educate people about the dangers of trying to zig-zag through barriers. From the soundtrack of a video of the event it seems the safety message vanished under the excitement of watching metal getting bent. "Woohoo. Holy crow. That was amazing."
In 1984, British authorities staged a crash that drew a sizable audience, some of them VIPs brought in by special train. Large tents were erected and a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch a train smash into a nuclear fuel container at 160 km/h. The container survived, the diesel locomotive went for scrap.
It all shows there is an enduring appeal to the sight of large metal objects smashing into each other. How else to explain NASCAR?
- Prior to a 1906 smash-up in California a Los Angeles Times reporter did a tongue-in-cheek promotion of the event as a horse race or boxing contest: “Trained to the minute, the iron gladiators will each be fed a light breakfast of 21 tons of soft coal and 3,500 gallons of water this morning.”
- Joe Connolly was the king of the staged train crash; so much so that he acquired the nickname “Head-On Joe.” During his long career of buckling iron he organized 73 train crashes. With a flare for the dramatic, Connolly put dynamite on the tracks for a more impressive bang. Then, he soaked wooden rail cars with gasoline to produce sheets of flame.
- The biggest crowd to ever watch one of these extravaganzas was 162,000 in New York City.
- “Crush’s Locomotive Crash Was a Monster Smash.” J.R. Sanders, Wild West Magazine, March 2, 2010.
- “Book of State Fair Images Celebrates Generations of Fun.” Dixie Reed, San Francisco Bee, February 8, 2010.
- “Head-on Train Wreck Staged in 1913.” Harmon Jolley, The Chattanoogan, September 11, 2007.
- “It Was a Train Wreck of an Event.” Steve Harvey, Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2011.
- “Fairgoers’ Delightful Destruction.” Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register, January 24, 2010.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Jo Miller from Tennessee on October 10, 2017:
I've never heard of staged train wrecks but often see ads for 'demolition derbies' for old, beat up cars in my area of the country. I've never understood the appeal.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on October 04, 2017:
LOL, entertainment makes me laugh. 162,000 was a humongous crowd back then.