Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Crash At Crush

The old saying about trainwrecks is that you don't want to look, but you can't turn away. Whoever came up with the saying overestimated 'you', seeing as back in 1999 Fox aired a show literally called 'Train Wrecks'.

A century earlier, people had much the same sensibilities, but in order to seek out train wrecks, they had to go see them live. In 1896, William George Crush, general passenger agent for the Texas region of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway sought to sate everybody's base desires, and promote his employers in the process.

Hey, I've got an idea. Let's stage a train wreck and invite everyone to watch!

Since Crush wasn't the man in charge, he had some higher-ups to convince that it wasn't going to be too dangerous or expensive. Somehow, he managed to talk his way through to approval. People would be brought into a tent city at a disused section of Texas railroad, charging a few dollars a head for transport, and there would be a safety zone of 150 yards around the expected collision point, beyond which there would be no admission.

The train conductors? They'd throw the throttles open, and then immediately jump off the trains and run for it.

Crush promoted like mad, and oh, yes, people wanted to see what was being billed as the 'Monster Wreck'. And not just people from Texas. People from both coasts-- and remember, this was still in the pre-car days. Crush had more publicity than he even knew what to do with, but he knew plenty. Lithographs littered Texas and neighboring states. The two disused locomotives slated for demolition, numbers 999 and 1001, were painted, draped with advertisements, and sent whistle-stopping across Texas in the days leading up to the event.

September 15, 1896. Crush, Texas, about 16 miles north of Waco. Crush was a tent city set up for the purpose. Something on the order of 40-50,000 people- at least the population of Dallas at the time if not more- would eventually gather for the Monster Wreck, with all manner of alcohol abound even though Crush- now on a horse- had set the event in a dry county. Food, games, speeches, all manner of entertainment prior to the big show. When the locomotives arrived, people crowded in so close that Crush only got them back by warning that if everyone wasn't back behind the 150-yard safety line, there would be no crash.

At 5 PM, the locomotives met at the collision zone to kiss cowcatchers, then reared up to about a mile apart, then as planned, the conductors threw open the throttle and ran.

When they hit, the trains were doing about 60 mph. Normally, when trains hit head on, the engines mutually rise up and the rest of the cars accordion behind them. That's what everyone expected to happen. That's certainly what Crush expected to happen. Prior to the event, he was worried that the boilers might explode, and asked every mechanical engineer he could find, will the boilers blow up? With a single exception, they all told him no.

The boilers blew up.

Remember that 150 yard safety zone? It wasn't nearly enough. The ground was cratered for 300. Two people died; one teenager's head was nearly split in half by a brake chain. Others suffered injuries equally horrific.

The people who weren't injured took a few minutes to compose themselves, then started scavenging for souvenirs.

These days, when something goes that wrong, one might expect to see public outrage and a call for the firing of whoever thought it up, but the company in question either not doing so or, alternatively, hiding the person somewhere else in the company. Not here, not by a longshot. Crush was fired the next day, but amazingly, there was no public outrage. If anyone was to blame, people figured, it was probably themselves for showing up for such a thing in the first place. That was if they complained at all. Some who weren't there actually regretted their absence.

There was so little negative reaction that, within days, the railroad rehired Crush, where he would remain until his retirement in 1940.

One photographer who lost an eye to a bolt, after receiving a $10,000 settlement and a lifetime rail pass, said a few weeks later in the local papers, "Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”

And the original goal- to drum up publicity for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway- was achieved with flying colors. As J.R. Sanders put it, "folks couldn't wait to ride the line audacious enough to stage its own train wreck."

Usually I try and have some sort of ending thought here, but none really seems possible.

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