Train Crash At Crush
(Train Crash staged as a promotional stunt for the Missouri Kansas & Texas Railroad,
better known as the M.K.&T. or Katy Railroad.)
To see crash photo gallery
Cleburne,Texas, my home town, has been a railroad town since the late 1800’s and my
family was a railroad family. My dad worked for Santa Fe and I had three uncles and
a cousin who worked there. Now my oldest son is working for Gunderson rebuilding rail
cars here in Cleburne.
The strangest story I ever heard about the railroad was about the “Crash At Crush.”
The year was 1896 and the country was going through an era of depression. The
Missouri Kansas & Texas Railroad, better known as the M.. K. & T. or Katy Railroad,
was suffering from a loss of rail traffic as were some of the other railroads.
About this time the railroad hired a William G. (Willie) Crush as assistant to the
vice president of the railroad. Willie Crush was somewhat of a promoter, having been
associated with one of the all time great promoters, P. T. Barnum. It was hoped
that he would do a good job of promoting the Katy and get some of their business back.
To gain the attention of the public, Willie convinced the Katy officials that to stage
a “Monster Wreck” of two trains would be good promotional business for the line.
After getting the okay to stage the ‘wreck’ Willie got busy with the preparations.
A straight stretch of track on the Katy’s main line 16 miles north of Waco, Texas was
selected as the site for the event. The track was level in this area and low hills
rising on either side of the track formed a natural amphitheater.
Handbills promoting the crash were posted on every available telephone pole along the
Katy line from St Louis, Missouri through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Newspaper and
magazine ads were also used to promote the event. Pretty soon this was the main
topic of conversation in all the towns along the route of the Katy.
Willie interviewed anyone he could who had witnessed a train crash and all the graduate
mechanical engineers working in the Round Houses on the line. He asked them all the
same question, “Will the steam boilers burst when the collision occurs?” All but one
assured him that they wouldn’t. Old man Hanrahan who had railroaded in both Ireland
and America was the only holdout. He was vocal in his conviction that they would,
yet all the others delivered a positive “No.” If the boilers did burst they would
send pieces of metal flying into the crowd like bullets.
With all the engineers being so sure that there was no danger of the boilers bursting
Willie tried to forget about this danger. However he couldn’t keep old man Hanrahan’s
words out of his mind. “They’ll burst and kill people all over the place,” he had
said. Trying to put this thought in the back of his mind, Crush went on about his
preparations for the “greatest of all time” train wreck spectacles.
Willie Crush went to the repair shops in Denison, Texas and asked C. T. McElvaney, the head
mechanic, to select two engines with tenders and six box cars for each. He selected
two 35-ton Pittsburgh 4-4-0’s of the 1870 vintage with the diamond shaped stacks.
Willie requested that the engines be painted red and green, one red with green trim and
one green with red trim. The box cars had ads promoting the Katy, plus two had ads
for the Oriental Hotel in Dallas and two had ads for Ringling Bros. Circus.
Charles Cain was to be the engineer on Number 1001 with S. M. Dickerson doing the
firing and Engineer C. E. Stanton was to run Number 999 with Frank Barnes as
fireman. Old Number 999 was bright green with red trim and No. 1001 was bright red
trimmed in green.
After the trains were ready, about a week before the big event, they were run up and
down the line, stopping in each town for public inspection. This was the climax to
the previous advertising campaign and drew large crowds at every stop.
Three days prior to the crash the crews were at the site making test runs.
Scores of tents were set up near the site of the crash including one huge circus tent
to house a super restaurant. Another more durable building of wood was erected to
serve as a jail for all the “bad characters” that showed up. A 2100 foot platform
and station was built to handle the many travelers expected. Eight tank cars filled
with water and equipped with many faucets and tin cups were handy to satisfy the
thirst of the many spectators. Besides this, many gallons of lemonade...and harder
beverages...were consumed by the thirsty crowd. The Katy built a “City for a Day”
and it was christened “Crush,” Texas.
The city for a day needed a police force and two hundred constables were employed.
Pickpockets were plentiful in those days and to be safe, many spectators carried
their folding money in their shoes. Drunks and trouble makers were expected and the
wooden jail got used “right well.”
By ten o’clock the morning of the big event a crowd of 10,000 had gathered to swelter
under the hot Texas sun. By early afternoon the crowd had grown to 30,000. The final
count that witnessed the event was estimated at between 40 and 50,000. No tickets
were sold, so an accurate count wasn’t possible.
The two hillsides were packed with human beings standing shoulder to shoulder. As far
as the eye could see every foot of space was occupied. Some stood in wagon beds,
others climbed trees. The curtain time was not far away.
Four o’clock came. William George Crush felt it was his big moment. In a matter of
seconds his big idea would fail or succeed.
The engines were making the final trial run. Excitement skyrocketed. The engineers
waved to the crowd as they touched cow-catchers and then began to back away for the
last time. They took their places at starting points on opposite hills two miles apart.
The next scene would be the big feature.
The Main Event
Both trains were now in position facing each other, two miles of straight empty rail
It took almost an hour for 200 deputy sheriffs to herd the frenzied mob back to the
safety zone. After this was done, Mr. Crush dramatically stepped up to the point of
collision, raised his arms and shouted instructions to his telegrapher to flash the
starting signal. A mighty roar went up from the great mass of humanity as the
engineers opened the throttles and the belching locomotives started on their mad
journey to destruction.
The behemoths spewed black smoke. The steam jets spewed live steam and the whistles
shrilled. The throttles had been tied open. Both engineers and firemen jumped as
planned, did a barrel roll or two, gained their feet and bowed to the crowd. A
succession of explosions of torpedos placed on the track spiced up the performance.
There was a mighty roar from the crowd as almost simultaneously there comes in sight,
tearing toward each other at the unbelieveable rate of ninety miles an hour, two huge
red and green locomotives. There is only a single track across the prairie. A crash
is inevitable. Closer and closer the locomotives, each followed by a string of box
cars and flat cars, rush to the spot where the crowd is holding its breath, waiting
for the crash of the steel monsters.
Suddenly there is an ear-splitting roar as the two powerful behemoths rip and tear
into each other. Box cars and flat cars climb atop their leaders and disintegrate;
the engines rear up like battling lions and then fall slowly back to earth, each
telescoping the other.
A split second after the crash there is another deafening roar .......THE BOILERS OF
THE LOCOMOTIVES HAVE BURST, thousands of chunks of metal are flying in the
air to rain down on the helpless spectators.
The one thing that George Crush had been told could not happen did happen. The one
thing that wasn’t planned for almost ruined the whole show.
After the two trains collide and the boilers burst, those spectators nearest the
collision try to escape, but it is too late. They are all jammed together unable to
get away from the spinning bits of metal showering down. In the front row
photographer J.C. Deane whirls around, his face bloody, one eye gouged out, a bolt
and washer buried in his head. Louis Bergstrom. another member of the photography
team is knocked unconscious by a plank.
Ernest Darnall, son of Col. Darnall of Bremond, sitting in a tree is killed instantly.A
heavy hook on the end of a wrecking chain caught him between the eyes and split his
skull. DeWitt Barnes of Hewitt standing between his wife and another woman is struck
and killed by a flying fragment. Neither of the women is injured.
Many others are burned by steam and flying hot metal. A Confederate soldier says it is
like a Civil War battle--people falling all around him.
A heavy smoke stack, blasted skyward, fell within the danger area, two heavy trucks
weighing a ton each were lifted off the ground by the concussion, turned end over end
for three hundred yards. All these gymnastics taking place in the danger zone where
no one was permitted.
The huge crowd stood stunned for minutes, and recovering from the shock and realizing
the danger was over, thousands poured over the smoking ruins for souvenirs. Some
found the steel fragments too hot to handle. Fingers were burned.
Willie Crush had guaranteed that no one would be injured. The Board was indignant and
braced themselves for the many damage suits they knew were coming. Willie was fired
before sun down.
The event accomplished its purpose. The news of the “Crash at Crush” gained headlines
around the world overnight. The Katy’s business picked up speedily. Willie Crush was
rehired within a few days. The word “Katy” was on the lips of every man, woman, and
child in America.
Those who didn’t get to see the big event have always wanted to see two locomotives
crash head on. Thousands regretted their failure to attend.
But for the danger of human life the Crash at Crush would, no doubt, have been repeated
many times. No railroad has ever had the nerve to repeat it....
I would like to thank Danny Dickerson of the Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple,
Texas for his assistance in researching this story.
Excerpted from “Crash at Crush” published by Waco Heritage & History, Vol. 8, No. 3,
Fall 1977. Copies available at Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas.
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