Staged Train Crashes: Our Dumb, Dangerous Old-Timey Pastime

Starting in 1896, staged train crashes were some of the most popular events in the United States.
Staged Train Crashes: Our Dumb, Dangerous Old-Timey Pastime

Destruction is a popular pastime. Demolition derbies fill arenas with crowds cheering for cars to smash into each other, and watching the downfall of civilization on the news and Twitter is everyone’s favorite hobby. Near the start of the 20th century, though, one particular form of destruction was a wildly huge spectacle: staged train crashes.

Yes, from 1896 until the 1930s, crowds numbering in the tens of thousands would gather at fairs and festivals to watch two locomotives slam into each other at 50 miles per hour. The events were dangerous, over-the-top, and too thrilling to ignore. 

The most famous of these was held on September 15, 1896, and it was an event so large that it kickstarted the entire train wreck boom. This event was known as “Crash at Crush,” and it was organized by the appropriately named William George Crush. Crush worked for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, commonly called the Katy Railroad, which was struggling. To help give the Katy some publicity, Crush had a bold idea: a staged train wreck north of Waco, Texas. This would not be the first train crash spectacle, but it would be the biggest.

Crush got to work to create a temporary town, also named Crush, for the event. It had a makeshift restaurant, water wells, and even a wooden jail. Because nothing screams “fun event” like a jail. He expected 20,000 people to travel to Crush via the Katy Railroad to watch the train collision. In the end, more than 40,000 attended, making Crush briefly the second-largest town in Texas.

Those who attended Crash at Crush watched as two old locomotives roared down the same track directly toward each other. The entire spectacle was filled with danger. For starters, humans had to be on board the trains to get them to full speed, and then they had to jump off before the collision. Then there was the matter of debris. The collision between two trains caused the boilers to explode, sending fiery metal in every direction. Crush and company did not plan for this. Engineers were consulted, but they said that no such explosion would happen. Without any plans for safety, the crash killed at least two people while many others were wounded.

Crash at Crush - Staged Train Crashes: Our Dumb, Dangerous Old-Timey Pastime

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You could say this was a real train wreck.

Did this mean that the event was a failure? Not at all. Attendees were thrilled about what they witnessed, and they stormed the wreckage in search of scraps that they could take home as souvenirs. William George Crush found himself out of a job due to the fatalities at the crash, but he was immediately hired back on when the railroad company realized how successful the event was.

After the Crash at Crush, staged train crashes became common across the country. None of them ever had quite the attention that Crush’s event did, but they were still big draws. One man named Joe Connolly made a career out of organizing train crashes and kept them going for decades. He knew that audiences needed to see something different after a few train crashes, so he did things like add explosives to the locomotives for a bigger boom.

Alas, all good things must come to an end (if you can count intentional train collisions as good things). By the 1930s, train wrecks were falling out of style. Audiences had new forms of entertainment, and even if organizers like Connolly made crashes more interesting, people would eventually want to see something else. Plus, the Great Depression came and took the fun out of train crashes. Even though the locomotives used in staged wrecks were old, it was still seen as a waste to use them like that in an era of shortages. 

For decades, though, train crashes stole the spotlight with the appeal of fire and destruction that audiences couldn’t get at any other early 20th-century show.

Top Image: Jervis C. Deane/Wiki Commons

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