If you are traveling north on I-35 about fourteen miles beyond Waco, start watching on your right for a historical marker tucked against the barbed wire fence. Don’t bother to stop, because there is nothing to see unless you want to read the marker. Had you been there 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 revenue. Katy officials agreed that promoting a train wreck between two old locomotives would stir a lot of interest and bring in revenue through the sale of $2 round-trip tickets to the event.
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 special track, built a grandstand for “honored guests,” converted a borrowed Ringling Brothers circus tent into a restaurant, and laid out a broad carnival midway lined with medicine shows, refreshment stands, and game booths. They even built a depot with a 2,100 foot-long passenger platform and a sign on the end of building modestly announcing to visitors that they had arrived at Crush, Texas.
At daybreak, the first of thirty-three 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 platform for reporters.
By 5:00 P.M., before an estimated crowd of more than 40,000, old engine No. 999, painted bright green and No. 1001 painted a brilliant red, faced each other and then backed for 3.5 miles in opposite directions. 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 engines. The crowd screamed as trains––whistles blaring––began barreling down the steep inclines toward the valley below, picking up speed as they churned forward. Both engineers tied the throttles wide open and jumped to safety. The cars trailing each engine bore brilliantly colored advertisements and waving streamers.
When the locomotives met in a shuddering, grinding clash both boilers exploded sending lethal missiles of metal and wood flying in all directions. Two men and a woman were killed and at least six received injuries including Waco’s most prominent photographer who was blinded.
William George Crush lost his job that night. And Katy rehired him the following day because the publicity wasn’t as bad as expected. The railroad paid damage claims with cash and lifetime rail passes. Souvenir hunters cleaned the site by carrying off pieces of the tragedy.
Ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who had performed in the area, probably witnessed the crash because he memorialized it in his march “Great Crush Collision.”
Now, you won’t need to stop to read the historical marker. Just slow down and imagine what it must have looked like in that field so many years ago.