The United States is a place of wild contrasts, and so it has been for all of its modern history. From the genteel faux-aristocrats of New York or Washington to the cultural melting pot of Louisiana and Florida, to the strange wilderness of the Pacific coastline dotted with huge low rise cities, it sometimes seems that almost anything is possible in the Land of the Free.
It also seems that this is nothing new, and America has often been a place for experimentation and risk taking. Often such activities occur just for fun. And sometimes such activities can be deadly.
So it was with what became known as the town of Crush, in Texas. More properly described as the Crash at Crush, this advertising gimmick was created purely for public spectacle.
The “Crush” in question would seem to be an apt description of the main event: two steam locomotives were to be driven head first at high speed into each other, creating an almighty explosion for the enjoyment of the crowd. But the name actually came for the man behind the stunt: William George Crush.
How was this idea conceived? And how did the Crash at Crush turn deadly?
The Second Largest Town in Texas
Crush was the general passenger agent of the Katy railroad which ran from Missouri to Kansas to Texas, an important and senior role. He conceived of the notion of crashing two trains into each other to demonstrate the awesome power of the locomotives, and as a publicity stunt to boost awareness of his railway.
No admission was charged to watch the event, and in addition reduced train fares were offered to anyone who wished to travel by train to watch the spectacle. But even Crush was probably not prepared for the runaway success of his venture.
More than 40,000 people ended up travelling to watch the Crash at Crush, making the temporary town the second largest city in Texas at the time. A huge sign at the entrance welcomed people to “Crush, Texas” and in no time a town had been built.
Water wells were dug, a circus tent was erected and special stands were put up so reporters could view the event. It seemed like a win-win for the railroad company, who had found a way to turn two obsolete train locomotives into a winning publicity campaign.
However, things were about to go very wrong. Despite a safety test the day before going off without a hitch, and despite engineers assuring him that the boilers were extremely unlikely to rupture, Crush was about to discover the raw power of steam engines at first hand.
Each train was travelling at about 45mph (72 kmh) when they collided. Shortly thereafter, there was a huge explosion: the boilers of both trains had, indeed, exploded. And exploded simultaneously.
Jagged and heavy fragments of metal were sent out in all directions by the destruction, the trains essentially turning into two giant fragmentation grenades. Although the crowd turned to run, it was too late and the metal shards torn through them. Three people were killed, and several more injured.
The locomotives themselves had been anticipated to rise into the air under the force of the collision. Instead they had both been completely destroyed by the explosion: almost nothing remained.
Crush was instantly fired from the Katy railroad for the debacle. However then something strange happened. The anticipated negative publicity never happened, and witnesses even returned to the crash site to collect wooden splinters from the trains as souvenirs.
The incident at the town of Crush turned out to be an enormous publicity boost for the Katy railroad, and many such other crashes were held in future years as others try to copy the stunt. Injury lawsuits were quickly settled, and Crush himself was hired back the very next day.
Crush would continue to work for the railroad for the next 60 years.
Top Image: The moment of the Crash at Crush. The photographer, Joe Deane, was blinded in one eye by flying debris from the explosion. Source: Jervis C Deane / Public Domain.
By Joseph Green