A PRE-ARRANGED HEAD-ON COLLISION
J. Marvin Hunter, Sr.
WE are wondering just how many of our Frontier Times readers ever heard of Crush City, Texas. I am of the opinion that there are still living in Texas many people who remember the pre-arranged head-on collision of two trains on the M. K. & T. Railroad in 1896, almost fifty-four years ago. It was the greatest publicity stunt ever witnessed in Texas, never to be forgotten. Recently the Waco Tribune-Herald, in its great Centennial Edition, published an account of the stirring scene, thus reviving memories of the exciting and tragic event.
Crush City, Texas, enjoyed the distinction of being the only city that ever came into existence with a population of fifty thousand souls, to exist just for one day, and be completely depopulated on the next. By city I do not mean the congregation of a cast crowd such as would assemble at a fair or circus, but a city in its true cosmopolitan sense, with all the attributes of a great metropolis clad in holiday attire. Although its corporate existence expired when the shades of evening came, it had, during its brief existence, officers of the laws, jails for the unruly, restaurants for the hungry, and saloons for those who were wont to quench their thirst with liquor. Fakirs of all classes were there; snake-charmers and side-shows, flying-jennies, and freaks of nature, and as one passed along the eye became dizzy and blinded with an ever varying succession of showy business enterprises. The rich, the poor, the great, the small, the strong and the weak were there; every station in society was represented, and lines of caste for the time were withdrawn; white men and negroes mingled in the throng and discussed together the probable result of the catastrophe. Crush City was not born under the natural laws which govern the birth of cities and towns. It was a prodigy born of an event, and when that event was over, the purposes of its life were consummated. It was a city of a day — yet the recollection of Crush City has remained in the memory of those who are still among the living.
Mankind must be amused. For weeks the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway Company had advertised to the world that on this September 15, 1896, they would entertain the public with a pre-arranged railroad collision. Surely no more novel or dangerous exhibition was ever attempted. Altogether it was one of the most realistic panoramas that man's ingenuity has evolved for the amusement of his fellows, and aside from the fatal wounding of two people and the minor injuries inflicted on others, the affair was grandly successful.
The following account of Crush City's rise and fall is taken from the Waco Tribune-Herald for October 30, 1949:
Picture a wooded pasture between Waco and West, the ground sloping gently to a center point; shiny railroad tracks cutting through the prairie. It is cool but not cold, Indian Summer weather. Fifty thousand people are milling about the prairie pasture, some in trees, some on improvised platforms, standing in wagon beds or seeking a vantage point on the rolling ground.
The assembly was at a point on the M-K-T Railroad near the town of West.
Suddenly the crowd becomes tense. A distant train whistle is heard in one continuous blast. Another joins in. The crowd's 100,000 eyes looked first up one length of the track and then down the opposite stretch.
There is a mighty roar from the crowd as almost simultaneously there comes in sight, tearing toward each other at the unbelievable rate of 90 miles an hour, two huge red and green locomotives. There is but 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 the crash of the two monsters.
A defiant roar comes from each of the throats of the whistles on the monsters. The whistle pulleys are tied down. Steam is bursting from the pop-off valve of the boilers. Jets of live steam and scalding water are forced from the drive-wheel valves.
Closer they come at their 90-mile an hour speed, rocking and reeling along the single track headed toward destruction.
Suddenly there is an ear-splitting roar as the two powerful behemoths smash and 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.
In a split second after the crash there is another deafening roar the boilers of the locomotives have burst, tossing thousands of chunks of metal hundreds of feet in the air to rain down on the helpless spectators.
The crowd surges apart and seeking shelter begins to deploy in small units which quickly become individuals. Pieces of metal from the sky fell some, but most escaped the barrage. A man falls from a mesquite tree, his skull ripped open by a flying chain, another falls from another tree, his leg broken and twisted. A farmer's wife suddenly drops to the ground and a 14-year old boy behind her screams in pain as one bolt from an engine fells both of them.
A Hewitt man, standing between his wife and another woman, is practically decapitated while neither of the women are touched. A photographer standing on a hastily erected platform suddenly can only see red out of one eye. A second photographer who has snapped the scene is busily dodging scrap metal falling from the sky. A farmer's wife riding along a public road half-mile away is knocked out by a piece of timber thrown through the air by the mighty explosion.
But excitement was too well in control. Thousands forgot danger and ran toward the wrecked trains to pick up souvenirs from the still hot and steaming mass of metal. Some had traveled thousands of miles to see the wreck and they weren't to be cheated out of a souvenir to take back home.
This was no railway accident in the normal sense of the word, but an advertising stunt — one of the strangest and most tragic ever conceived.
The idea was born in the brain of W. G. Crush, then general passenger agent for the Katy Railroad. What an advertising stunt this would be! It would gain nationwide publicity, people would travel thousands of miles to witness the crash. Special trains would be run from all sections of the nation. No admission price would be charged for the spectacle; the special train fares would more than pay for the two worn out locomotives and the rotten boxcars needed for the stunt.
The danger of the boilers exploding at the time of impact was called to the attention of Crush. Experts assured him that the boilers could be fixed so they would not explode.
All arrangements were completed and on Sept. 15, 1896, the collision was staged before a crowd estimated at 50,000 persons.
Ice water was furnished the thirsty throng free of charge by the Katy from tank cars equipped with hundreds of faucets.
Leo Wolfson of Dallas capitalized on the crowd and set up dozens of lemonade stands to serve the waiting and excited throng.
At least two men are still living in Waco who viewed the crash and hold clear pictures in their minds today of the planned catastrophe. J. L. Bergstrom of 1502 North Eleventh Street, and Allan D. Sanford, attorney, furnished the background for the above description of the scene.
Sanford was merely an interested spectator but Bergstrom was one of the three official photographers of the crash. Martin Dean and Jervis Dean were the two other photographers. Dean and Dean had the contract to record the accident on film and employed Bergstrom to aid them.
Bergstrom had been a photographer here but sold his equipment and entered the bicycle repair business.
Bergstrom and the two Deans were ensconced on a platform just a few feet from where the two locomotives were supposed to crash. Dean was scheduled to photograph the two engines just before they crashed, Bergstrom was to take the actual crash and Jervis Dean was to snap the scene just after the crash. Thus, the three would make a running series of pictures of the crash for history.
Bergstrom snapped his picture and then noticed that Jervis Dean had blood running from the corner of his eye. He said he was so busy dodging the flying metal the next few minutes that he did not notice how badly Dean was injured. After the metal stopped flying, he began to call for a doctor in the crowd to attend to Dean. A Dr. Wederwich who was a spectator in the throng, pushed his way to the platform and started to inspect Dean's eye. It was found that a stray bolt had rocketed from the crash and embedded itself behind Dean's eyeball. Dean lost the sight of one eye, but is still alive today, according to Attorney Sanford.
Bergstrom said another photographer, Louis Crow, one of the owners of Crow Bros. Laundry, was on the platform snapping the scene. He was equipped with a new-fangled camera, called a Kodak, which had just been placed on the market.
Neither Dean nor Bergstrom were injured but they saw most of the dead and injured. When people found there was a doctor at the platform they began to rush the dead and injured to him for treatment.
A Mrs. Overstreet, a farmer's wife, and Roy Kendrick, 14 years old, were wounded by the same bolt from the crash. Mrs. Overstreet was knocked unconscious and then the bolt sped through the youth's thigh.
A young man named Egbert McFadden, who had come from Covington, Tenn., to Texas for his health, had climbed a mesquite tree near the crash scene so that he could see better. He decided just before the trains appeared that he could see better from the ground. When he climbed down, Ernest Darnall, son of Colonel Darnall of Bremond, climbed to the vacated seat.
When the crash occurred a heavy hook on the end of a wrecking chain flying through the air caught young Darnall between the eyes and split his skull. He was killed instantly.
Dewitt Barnes of Hewitt, standing between his wife and another woman, was struck and killed by a flying fragment of the wreck. Neither of the women were injured.
Theodore Millenberg fell from a tree in the excitement and broke his leg. Numerous people suffered burns and bruises from the hot metal fragments.
It is reported that Jervis Dean settled with the railroad for $10,000 cash and a lifetime pass on all the M-K and T lines. The Katy paid off all claims as fast as they were presented. The advertisement of the planned crash had said there would be no danger to spectators.
One of the engines used in the crash was No. 999. having a green cab and red trimming. The other locomotive was No. 1001, having a red cab and green trimming. More than 30 special trains from all points of the nation rolled into West and Waco that day bringing people to see one of the events of America that out-Barnumed Barnum.