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On Sept. 15, 1896, on a stretch of prairie a few miles north of Waco, Texas, two steam locomotives, each going 60 mph and each pulling six boxcars, crashed head on. At least forty thousand spectators watched it happen. Dozens were injured. Two were killed.
The Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad staged the collision as a publicity stunt to, in effect, put central Texas and the rail line on the map, and it worked. Nearly every newspaper in the country wrote of the event in advance and then carried coverage of it, and stories of the great crash appeared in papers around the world. Thirty-three special excursion trains brought people to the scene, some from such distant points as Kansas City and Chicago.
The M.K&T Railroad, commonly known as the Katy and still in operation, linked St. Louis, Kansas City and the port of Galveston. Along its 2,800 miles of track lay a stretch perfectly suited for the spectacle of wrecking trains. It was straight. It dipped into a long, shallow valley and then climbed out, so that both trains could make a downhill run, gain speed and collide at the valley's lowest point. And on both sides of the track, at a proper distance, were gentle slopes from which thousands of people would have a fine view.
The decision to wreck the trains was made first and then the search began to find a site. The man ordered to find it was the aptly named William George Crush, general passenger agent for the Katy. Crush was, in fact, in charge of every aspect of the crash; it was his show. He seems to have been energetic, imaginative, well-connected and thorough, for he did a splendid job. He handled the publicity. He laid out the difficult logistics of maneuvering 33 excursion trains over a single railroad track to the same point within a few hours and caring for their passengers. And he dealt with the technical problems of making two decrepit and temperamental steam locomotives run as if they were young again for a few glorious moments, and then destroy each other precisely in front of a grandstand filled with VIPs.
The population of central Texas in 1896 was thin. Waco had about 12,000 citizens; Dallas just slightly more than 40,000. Between the two cities dirt roads connected little towns where cotton farmers traded. There were no cars and no highways. The Katy was the great artery of travel north and south. The site selected for the crash had no facilities for visitors, just grass, grasshoppers, a few trees and a hard, hot sky. So for the purpose of staging his train wreck in style—and gathering in a bit of the excursionists' money—William Crush founded Crush, Texas, a town-for-a-day that sprang up on the open prairie and, for a few hours, challenged Dallas as Texas' largest city.
Quite a bit of extra track had to be laid at Crush, for it was obvious that after the wreck the main line wouldn't be usable for days. Katy workmen built a platform nearly half a mile long where several trains at once could disembark passengers. Crush arranged to have the trains, once emptied, wait on sidings at Waco (16 miles to the south) and Hillsboro (20 miles north). He filled eight railway tank cars with pure artesian drinking water, equipped them with multiple faucets and drinking cups on chains and strung them out along a track of their own. Mid-September is hot in Texas. There was to be no charge for a drink'of water.
A circus tent, borrowed from The Ringling Brothers, became a restaurant: two dozen waiters served sandwiches, light lunches and iced tea. But no alcoholic beverages were sold, because Crush figured that the liquor brought in by the spectators would cause confusion enough. He built a wooden jail and recruited 200 special constables to fill it with drunks and pickpockets.
Though Crush was a friend of P.T. Barnum's and had access to his skill with publicity, he didn't need it. The mere announcement that the great train wreck was to occur started people all over the country to speculating about just how awful it would be. Still, Crush distributed throughout Katy's territory circus-style posters, showing in bright colors an artist's conception of the crash. Excursion tickets cost $2.
The locomotives selected for immolation weighed 35 tons each. They had been around since about 1870, and they looked it. Their cowcatchers had probably nosed through herds of buffalo on the Kansas plains. But the roundhouse crew at Denison, Texas was confident that it could raise enough steam in the engines' old boilers to generate the necessary speed.
The key question was, would the boilers burst in the crash? If they did, hundreds of locomotive parts would become projectiles traveling as much as half a mile, and the number of injured spectators—not to mention lawsuits against the Katy—might be unacceptable. An old roundhouse foreman named Hanrahan, who had railroaded in Ireland before coming to America, assured Crush that the boilers certainly would burst. But everybody else, engineers, shop bosses and steam fitters, said they wouldn't. Hanrahan was so heavily outvoted in this opinion poll that Crush turned his attention to other matters.