In 1896 two trains were intentionally crashed into each other! It was a publicity stunt, with a crowd of thousands of watching the staged disaster. But when things went wrong, it turned into a real disaster. This is the strange story of deliberate train crashing.
Birth of An Industry
Hilariously thought up by a man called William Crush, it’s purpose was to raise money for a railway company in Texas. He was not the first person to deliberately crash 2 trains into each other – but he wanted to do it on a scale no one else could afford. With the backing of a major railway, he laid down a fresh train track 14 miles north of Waco Texas. Then with 2 old trains donated by the railway, he advertised a head on collision. And he didn’t stop there, a circus tent was set up for carnival games and food stands. Crush envisioned it as a major event – and what’s more, entry to the event was free.
These were the days before television – when people’s only form of entertainment was trying on new hats – like this one. So word of the event spread like wildfire. People came from all across America to see a once in a lifetime train crash. Entry was free because these people would first need to get the train to the crash site. Tickets cost 3 dollars 50 – which might sound like a bargain, but in today’s money it’s equal to more than 100.
Still, countless were willing to pay. It’s unclear how many people actually turned up – but on the day it was estimated more than 40 thousand were there. The area was declared a temporary city – the city of Crush, named after it’s creator. Crush was actually the second largest city in Texas at the time – not bad considering it only existed for one day. But there were so many people the crash kept having to be delayed.
By the time the trains were set up to charge into each other, it was 5PM. Facing one another on a single track, the train drivers started their engines. Then just before the collision, they jumped from the train to avoid a ridiculous death. Railway engineers promised Crush the collision would be safe. But amazingly, crashing trains for fun turned out to be foolish. When the trains smashed into each other, both their boilers exploded, giving a much larger blast than expected.
Fragments of wood and metal were thrown high into the air, reigning down on the nearby crowd. Some fragments were the size of cinder blocks. Two people died immediately, including a teenager who took a metal hook to the face. Many more were injured, even people half a mile away. It was mostly luck who in the crowd escaped harm. The man who took this photo was blinded in one eye. While some ran away or were frozen in fear, the bulk of the crowd ran towards the wreckage – hoping to find a valuable souvenir.
To be honest I’m surprised that only 2 people died, considering how disastrously the crash went. The most tragic part is that William Crush lost his position at the railway company. But he was re-hired the next day. So now I think about it, the deaths are the tragic part. News of the disaster made national headlines, giving the railway the publicity they desired. So instead of deterring people from organizing similar events, it inspired them. That same year there was at least another 5 intentional train crashes. And it didn’t stop there. For the next 4 decades train crashing became one of America’s favourite pastimes.
Today it’s a largely forgotten chapter of history. But millions of dollars was made in the crashing business. No other single crash would generate the attention or notoriety of the crash at crush. But it remained an industry into the 1930s. In fact, one man alone organized 70 events. His nickname was Head-on Joe, and he was the PT Barnum of dumb train crashing.
Starting off as the manager of an opera house, he knew how to promote a show. So when he saw the crowd reaction to the train crashes in 1896, Joe realised there was serious money in it. Just 3 months later, he organized his own in Iowa. According to a local newspaper, more than 80 thousand people were there – and just like in Texas, countless of them ran towards the wreckage. Some people burned their hands on the still hot metal. The newspaper was likely exaggerating, but many thousands of people were certainly there to see it. So he organized another crash, and then another. And before long, his entire career was this ridiculous nonsense.
Sometimes he would make extra cash by putting adverts on the sides of trains. Considering how many people would see the soon to be destroyed ad, it was mutually beneficial. I only wish corporations would do that today. By 1907 he had done it 26 times, making himself wealthy in the process. As time went on he got better at advertising the crashes – using lines like “Iron monsters of ancient make tear each other to scrap iron amid clouds of steam”.
Falling Out of Fashion
Then after a large crowd was inevitably drawn, he would move on to the next city for another crash. He was like a bad comedian just doing the same bit wherever he went. Yet every now and then he mixed things up. Going out with a bang, he final collision would be his most well known. It was 1932 – an election year – with Roosevelt and Hoover being the 2 presidential candidates. So Head on Joe labelled each of the two trains after the 2 candidates. Then he claimed the more in tact train after the crash would probably win the election. It’s pretty good logic if you ask me.
More than 45 thousand people turned out to see who would win. But considering it was a head on collision, neither of them did. Either way, it made a lot of money and head on Joe retired. He may not have been the only man in the business, but in the 1930s train crashing was going out of fashion. With the world rapidly modernising, it just seemed a bit… insane.
Health and safety aside, it was too weird to go on for much longer. The last organised crash in the US took place in 1935. The same events and fairs would happen – but instead of train crashing, it was air displays. I assume today it’s not legal to crash trains in front of a crowd of thousands. And since it ended almost 9 decades ago, most people have forgotten it was one of America’s biggest pastimes. So yeah, train crashing – it’s like an extreme version of monster truck rallies – which to be fair are pretty extreme to begin with.