When two locomotives bumped together 123 years ago, it cost some of the onlookers their lives.
The fabled publicity stunt near West on Sept. 15, 1896, is the topic of the book “Crash at Crush,” written by author Mike Cox. He gave an overview of the book Saturday morning in the lobby of Temple Railroad and Heritage Museum.
In her introduction of Cox, Angela McCleaf, museum curator, called it “the most complete telling of one of America’s wackiest stories … in a town named Crush, Texas — a town that lasted only for a day.”
At the instigation of Billy Crush, one of its passenger agents, the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad — also called the Katy Railroad — decided to deliberately crash two steam locomotives going 50 mph, Cox said. Crush selected the site, three miles south of West.
“It’s a natural amphitheater,” Cox said. “People could be on both sides and look down.”
On what had been farmland, Crush built a depot, a couple of office buildings and a large concession area set up like a carnival midway, Cox said.
“Then they picked two obsolete Katy steam locomotives, painted one mostly green and the other mostly red,” he said.
Empty boxcars were added behind the engines, and Crush — not one to pass up an opportunity, Cox said — sold advertisements on the boxcars.
The crowd estimates vary, but Cox settled for about 40,000 people.
“For that single day, it was the largest city in Texas,” he said.
Crush rode around the scene on a white horse, Cox said.
“He kept trying to push the crowd back,” he said. “They were too close.”
Four miles of track had been laid. The engines started a mile apart. The engineers set the throttles so they could jump off before the train was going too fast, he said.
“It would have been a really fine afternoon,” he said. “But the boiler blew. That sent shrapnel out into this crowd.”
Cox said two people were killed and six were injured. That the injuries were so few was amazing, he said.
Although he arranged a relief effort in Waco, Crush thought he would be fired. However, he worked for Katy until the early 1940s.
Cox said two lawsuits were filed against Katy, and the legend has been that the railroad paid $10,000 each to the families of the victims. Cox said the actual settlement was for only a few hundred dollars.
The museum at West has a display on the crash that is heavy on some of the mythology surrounding the crash, Cox said. One of the museum docents is a granddaughter of one of the farmers whose land was leased to the Katy Railroad for the crash. She led Cox and his wife, Beverly, to the site of the crash.
Her grandfather was 8 years old at the time of the crash, she told them. The boy wanted to be in the watching crowd, but his father said it was too dangerous. The rest of the family went to see the crash, but he had to stay behind with two sisters to watch him. He slipped out, climbed into the hayloft and had a perfect view of the crash, the docent said.
Another part of the story is that the career of Scott Joplin, known as the king of ragtime music, got a boost from the train crash. Joplin wrote “The Crush Collision March,” which sold well.
Crush said Joplin had been playing at Temple nightclubs and had connections with the Katy Railroad through a friend who was a porter.
“I think he was either there that day or knew people who were there,” Cox said.