The year was 1896, and a passenger agent for the Katy Railroad in Texas named William George Crush had a fantastical idea to spur up publicity for the railroad he worked for during a slow economic period. His plan? Stage a tremendous train wreck. But the wreck wouldn’t come from one train. It would involve two trains speeding toward each other until they collided.
Crush somehow got his superiors to agree to the stunt, and he began to inform the newspapers around the country about the event. Word quickly spread, and the Katy Railroad began bringing spectators on 33 different trains at the cost of $2 per ticket to the spot where the event was to take place.
The trains dropped off their passengers at an area 15 miles north of Waco, Texas, in the central part of the state. There was no town there at the time, but Crush changed that. He created a temporary town that he appropriately named after himself. It was called Crush, Texas.
On September 15, 1896, 40,000 people came to witness the spectacle. They crowded the hillsides of the one-day town where there was a view of a track running at the bottom of a small valley.
At 4:00 P.M., the two trains began to move toward each other. They touched and then backed up opposite each other a mile in either direction. Each engine was 35-tons, and each had six boxcars attached that displayed advertising on the sides. One engine had been painted green while the other engine was painted red.
Crush rode a horse in front of the crowd before the event. When he felt the time was right, he threw his hat in the air to signal for the trains to begin their race toward each other. Locomotive engineers opened the throttles of each train, tied down the cord for the whistle, and jumped from the moving trains.
The trains raced toward each other between 45 to 60 mph before they closed the gap and collided in a cacophony of noise and a billowing cloud of black smoke. The trains fell to their sides, but something very wrong was about to happen. Suddenly the boilers of each train exploded violently, which shot out bits of shrapnel into the thick crowd.
What was supposed to be a safe publicity stunt suddenly took a disastrous turn. Three people were killed almost instantly, while others were burned by steam or flying shrapnel. The official photographer of the event, Jervis Deane, lost an eye when a bolt turned into a deadly projectile. The crowd was stunned since they had been told with certainty that the boilers would not explode. Their assumption had been wrong.
Crush was fired the same day of the accident, but his plan had achieved its intended effect. The story spread across the globe in just a few days. It only helped the Katy Railroad’s bottom line. People couldn’t get enough of the story. Crush was then rehired shortly thereafter, but well under the radar of the news.
The Katy Railroad quickly compensated the families of those who had been killed and those who had been injured during the stunt, and it never affected the railroad line’s future success. The only thing remaining today of the town for a day and the horrendous event is a plaque that commemorates the event outside the town of West, Texas, just north of Waco.
Sources: Texas State Historical Association, City of West, Texas, Texas Co-Op Power, Smithsonian