If you are traveling north on I-35 about 15 miles past Waco, watch for a Texas historical marker against the fence on your right. Don’t bother to stop, because there is nothing to see unless you want to read the marker. Had you been at this site on September 15, 1896, you would have seen plenty.
William George Crush, the general passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad, conjured up a rip-roaring publicity stunt to generate some much needed revenue. Katy RR officials agreed that promoting a train wreck between two old locomotives would stir a lot of interest, and if they sold $2 round-trip tickets from anywhere in the country they could make a bundle.
Crush sent out circulars and bulletins throughout the summer advertising the “Monster Crash”. Newspapers all over Texas and the surrounding states ran daily crash progress reports. Katy workers laid four miles of track, built a grandstand for “honored guests”, set up a restaurant in a borrowed Ringling Brothers circus tent, and constructed a huge carnival midway with medicine shows, refreshment stands, and game booths. They even built a depot boasting a 2,100 foot-long platform and a sign modestly announcing to visitors that they had arrived at Crush, Texas.
At dawn on the big day, the first of 33 fully loaded excursions trains arrived, some so crowded that passengers rode on the roofs of the cars. Many others came by wagon and on horseback. They picnicked, listened to political speeches at the three speakers’ platforms, and surged around the bandstand and special area for reporters.
At 5:00 P.M., before an estimated crowd of more than 40,000, old engine No. 999 painted bright green and No. 1001 painted brilliant red began slowly backing until they were 3.5 miles apart. William George Crush mounted on a handsome white horse and wearing a white suit, removed his white hat, held it high above his head, and then whipped it down as the signal to start. The crowds screamed as steam engines, whistles blaring, began barreling down steep inclines toward the valley below, picking up speed as they churned forward. Both engineers tied the throttles wide open and jumped to safety. Colorful advertisements plastered the boxcars trailing each locomotive.
The locomotives met in a shuddering, grinding crash. Both steam boilers exploded rocketing schrapnel-like pieces of metal into the crowd. Two men and a woman were killed, at least six received injuries including Waco’s most prominent photographer who was blinded.
William George Crush lost his job that day. And, Katy rehired him the following day. The railroad paid damage claims, including lifetime rail passes. Souvenir hunters helped clean the site by carrying off pieces of the tragedy.
In the early 20th century, Scott Joplin memorialized the event with his march, “The Great Crush Collision”.
Now, you won’t need to stop. Just slow down and imagine the scene in that field so many years ago.