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September 15, 1896: Engines No. 999 and No. 1001 a moment before impact. (Photo courtesy of Four Event Photos, The Texas Collection, Baylor University)

Thirty yards or so down the track, the respective engineers would throw their trains’ throttles wide open, and the crews would jump to safety. Physics would do the rest

It happened out on the Texas plains, miles from anywhere, yet it drew as many people as there were in Dallas. It was the talk of the state in the summer of 1896, a rubbernecker’s dream realized and an accident waiting to happen. It was a train wreck…and something much more. It was a carefully planned event, offering smashing entertainment, but not like anything found in, say, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. It was trains gone wild, nothing short of a late 19th-century reality show.

Increasing competition and a sagging economy plagued the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway Company (popularly known as “the Katy”) that summer. Company executives charged William George Crush, their general passenger agent for Texas, with devising ways to boost publicity and increase ticket sales. Crush was a shrewd observer of human nature. Having noted that train wrecks held a morbid fascination for many people, he proposed a slam-bang idea to raise the company’s profile: Why not stage a head-on train collision and invite the public out to watch?

The Katy’s corporate nabobs were skeptical. It sounded absurd, dangerous and, worst of all, costly. But Crush—who had the perfect name for the job—pressed his case; the Katy’s investment would be minimal, he insisted. The company was in the midst of replacing its aging 40-ton locomotives with more powerful engines. Crush requested two of the old workhorses, plus a few surplus cars. He proposed to crash the obsolete trains in an isolated spot on the prairie, after ferrying in spectators from all over Texas at $1 to $3.25 per head. Crush was certain folks would turn out by the thousands for such a spectacle. “Seeing the elephant” would have nothing over witnessing Crush’s “Monster Wreck.”

Crush’s persuasive powers soon had the railroad brass in the roundhouse. They set the collision for September 15, and Crush set to work. “Oh!” he exulted to The Galveston Daily News, “but it’s going to be a smashup, though!” His plan, he said, was “to turn the engines loose at full speed about two miles from the point of contact.” Thirty yards or so down the track, the respective engineers would throw their trains’ throttles wide open, and the crews would jump to safety. Physics would do the rest.

The newspapers gobbled up all details. Crush expected 15,000 to 20,000 people to view the exhibition, and he guaranteed them a regular jubilee, with food, drink and amusements galore. He tantalized reporters with hair-raising descriptions of the Monster Wreck while stressing precautions that would ensure onlookers’ safety. By means of a special telegraphic wire, Crush explained, “The engineers will be given the signal for the start, and each throttle will be pulled simultaneously.” Timing the trains in advance would predetermine the exact collision point. A safety perimeter of 150 yards would be established around this point, and no one would be admitted within the danger zone.

Not to worry, Crush reassured readers. “The place selected for the collision is a natural amphitheater, and nobody will have any trouble viewing the entire exhibition.” He would only divulge that the site was “between Hillsboro and Waco,” a span of 30 miles. “We will announce the exact place later on,” he teased.

Crush’s secret spot was a tree-speckled patch of rolling land along the Katy line, about 14 miles north of Waco and three miles south of the town of West. It was an ideal locale; a 100-acre meadow with hills to the north, south and west. Some 200 yards west of the tracks, the sheer bank of a dry creek bed formed a natural plateau—a perfect viewing platform and a natural demarcation for the safety zone. Crews would lay a spur north to south along the main track, where sloping terrain would send each train downhill at a nearly 2 percent grade for most of its final run.

A 500-man crew began work on the four-mile spur, built a 2,100-foot station platform and laid pipe from two wells and five tank cars to supply dozens of faucets spaced along the spectator area. They also built a grandstand for dignitaries, a bandstand, a carnival midway, a press platform and three separate speakers’ stands.

Even as workers set the stage for the big event, Crush was inundated with public interest. Mail came from each coast, all points in between and every city, town and village throughout the Lone Star State. The correspondence, as one account put it, “piled up to his eyes,” and the three stenographers Crush hired couldn’t stem the tide.

The overwhelming response only buoyed the railroad agent. He’d promised his employers publicity, they’d gotten plenty, and the best was yet to come. If, for the moment, Crush felt he could do no wrong, he’d soon be reminded that pride does indeed goeth before a fall.

In the final days, Crush kept up his publicity blitz. Thousands of gaudy lithographs with an artist’s conception of the Monster Wreck were scattered across Texas and adjoining states. The Katy chose locomotives No. 999 and No. 1001 for the task. The line’s chief mechanic pronounced them fit, and crews rendered the old black engines festive, painting 999 green with red trim and 1001 red with green trim. They likewise gussied up the six stock cars each engine would pull, draping them with colorful banners advertising the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Texas State Fair and the Oriental Hotel in Dallas. The trains then made whistle-stop tours throughout Texas.

On September 15, William Crush was riding high, literally, on a tall black horse, from which he’d supervise the festivities. Starting at dawn, four special Katy trains brought in spectators from all over the state. By 10 a.m. an estimated 10,000 people walked the grounds of the temporary but bustling community. Trains arrived at Crush Station every few minutes, well into the afternoon. Between them and the parade of arriving private buggies, carriages and carts, the throng soon approached 40,000. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. The overflow crowd enjoyed games and speeches and gobbled down franks and sauerkraut at the diner beneath a giant tent borrowed from Ringling. Though Crush had purposely selected a “dry” precinct of McLennan County, many had smuggled in beer and stronger potables. Two hundred special constables handled the occasional outbreak of fisticuffs and other drunken high jinks, lodging troublemakers in a makeshift calaboose.

At 3 p.m. the trains emerged from their berths, wild cheering erupted and hundreds crowded within feet of the track for a better look. Crush rode his “prancing charger” along the line and urged the trespassers back, while the constables were more blunt. “The effort only succeeded,” wrote The Galveston Daily News, “when the positive threat was made that if the people did not retire beyond the deadline, the collision would never take place.”

By 4 p.m.—zero hour—passenger trains were still delivering carloads of curiosity seekers, and Crush announced an hour’s postponement to allow for late arrivals. At 5 sharp the dueling locomotives steamed slowly down the track and, like gladiators, stopped face-to-face in the middle for a “salute.” Then the engineers reversed gear, and the trains lumbered back up to their starting points. Telegraph signals ran back and forth:

Are you ready?


Then go!

Crush raised his hat, the crowd roared and the trains started downhill. A sound “like the rattle of musketry” added drama as each locomotive set off a series of “track torpedoes”—tiny charges used by railroads as warning signals—that crews had fastened along the rails.

Test runs had predicted a terminal speed of 58 mph. “Nearer and nearer as they approached the fatal meeting place,” the papers reported, “the rumbling increased, the roaring grew louder and hundreds who had come miles to see found their hearts growing faint within them.”

“Words and kodacs [sic] are powerless,” said The Ferris (Texas) Wheel, “to picture the scene as the iron monsters dashed into each other.” Onlookers had only seconds to absorb the rare sight, the deafening sound, the terrific concussion. Then, as a few foolhardy souls rushed across the deadline, a horrific double explosion rent the air.

Crush and his team had made a tragic miscalculation. In head-on collisions, engines typically rose together in an inverted V, while the cars behind crumpled, accordionlike. This time, for whatever reasons, the two engines instead telescoped together. Their boilers exploded at once, sending up what one reporter described as “flying missiles of iron and steel, varying in size from a postage stamp to half a driving wheel.” Tens of thousands scrambled to avoid the iron and wood debris catapulting through the sky. Distance was no guarantee of safety; debris peppered the crowd and pocked the earth as far as 300 yards away.

The “black clouds of death-dealing iron hail” claimed several victims. A 10-pound section of brake chain nearly cleaved teenager Ernest Darnell’s head in two, killing him. Another chunk of iron hit local farmer John Overstreet’s daughter, fracturing her skull; though reports had the girl “resting easy 30 minutes later,” she died on the ride home. A flying bolt end knocked Waco photographer Jervis C. Deane from the press platform, ripping through his right eye and lodging in his brain. Miraculously, Deane didn’t just survive but stood, dusted himself off and gave his two brothers—photographers themselves—“minute directions about the finishing of the pictures he had taken.” Deane would remain a photographer in Waco until 1901.

Reports tallied sundry other injuries. Another airborne bolt pierced young Roy Kendrick’s ankle; Theodore Millberger toppled from a tree and broke a leg; a flying timber downed a Waco fireman, smashing several of his ribs. Shrapnel cut and bruised many onlookers. Steam and hot metal scorched others as they joined the souvenir stampede, picking the iron and wood carcasses clean as a Christmas goose. An ironic casualty was Ferris resident John Morrison, who survived the explosion unscathed only to fall between cars on the train ride home. The caboose rolled over the unlucky man, killing him instantly.

The Katy executives clearly expected mass outrage over the debacle, for they immediately fired William Crush. But public outcry amounted to little more than pooh-poohing and the clicking of tongues. The most damning press came from The Dallas Morning News, which editorialized that “when one looked closely at the smoking heap, the vanity of inanimate pride was shown to be as empty and hollow as that of mere mortals,” even as it bragged that the city was “well represented” at the affair by “1,500 Dallasites.” The Katy quietly settled lawsuits brought by injury victims and the families of the slain; Deane pocketed a $10,000 settlement and a lifetime rail pass.

In the end, the Monster Wreck was every bit the public relations bonanza Crush had promised. The Katy was the toast of Texas, as folks couldn’t wait to ride the line audacious enough to stage its own train wreck. The Ferris Wheel pronounced the collision “a howling success.” One peculiar tribute came from ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who, some biographers claim, had witnessed the calamity. Joplin’s “Great Crush Collision March” was among his early hits. Texas businesses also capitalized on the notoriety. Galveston clothier Eduard Hirschfeld advertised his own “Head End Collision,” declaring in print that “hard times have wrecked high prices.” A Houston laundry boasted that, like the collision, it would make the “dirt fly.” Jervis Deane himself took out a newspaper advertisement reading, “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.”

The Katy evidently figured it had gotten its money’s worth, as Crush was back on the payroll within days. The crash marked the end of his career as a showman, but he remained quietly in the line’s employ until his retirement in 1940.

The old huckster might have been proud—or perhaps horrified—to know that a century after his Monster Wreck, folks could witness similar spectacles weekly from the safety of their living rooms on such programs as Smash Lab and Destroyed in Seconds. For all his folly, Crush was a trailblazer, giving Americans possibly their first “extreme reality” show.

J.R. Sanders is a frequent contributor to Wild West. Suggested for further reading: The Story of American Railroads, by Stewart H. Holbrook.