The Crush, Texas Train Crash: a Bizarre and Deadly Spectacle

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena reads old newspaper articles to learn about a strange episode from the past: a fatal train crash that was deliberately staged in Texas in 1896 as a publicity stunt.

Our ancestors experienced some strange events that never made it into the history text books and have been largely forgotten now. In September 1896 many people witnessed—and even more read about in the newspapers and discussed with their family and friends—a fatal train crash in Texas that was caused deliberately as a bizarre public event.

There’s something about wrecks that fascinates us—it seems to be human nature to stare at them even though we know we shouldn’t. Our ancestors also had a difficult time averting their eyes from horrific disasters. Media outlets today know that purposely crashing vehicles and exploding things makes for good entertainment, and our 19th century ancestors would have agreed.

The Crash at Crush, Texas

The “Crash at Crush” event was a train wreck, literally, and it was all in the name of publicity. William G. Crush, an employee of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (known as the “Katy”), had the idea that he could use two aged train engines, crash them into each other, and people would come to witness the spectacle. And to make sure the crowds would be there, he started his publicity machine early—with newspaper articles and advertising, including announcing the schedule for the two doomed engines on their final trip to Crush. The two engines chosen for the event were brightly painted, one green and one red, and exhibited before the day of the train crash to stir up further interest.

article about the preparations for the train crash staged in Crush, Texas, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 11 September 1896

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 11 September 1896, page 3

For the crash site, Crush chose a spot in McLennan County, drilled two wells for drinking water for the spectators, and erected circus tents and a grandstand. Admission to the event was free.

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On 15 September 1896 the crowds did come; an estimated 30,000-40,000 people were in attendance. The place where Crush staged the crash was known as “Crush, Texas,” a temporary “town” that was specifically created, and dismantled soon after, for the train wreck spectacle. While the event itself was free, attendees did have to pay for a train ticket to get to the crash site. For $2 you could hop a train anywhere in Texas to travel to Crush, 10 miles outside of Waco, to enjoy the festivities. William G. Crush thought of everything to make the event a success—or so he thought.

Crush had considered safety—but he didn’t prepare for every contingency. He constructed a special four-mile stretch of track to hold the two trains, and had the locomotive engineers jump off the trains once the engines were in motion. Spectators were kept a “safe” distance away. Even though Crush was assured that the crash would be safe for spectators, the unexpected happened when the two trains, at 45 miles per hour, crashed headlong into each other.

photo of the moment of impact of the train crash at Crush, Texas, on 15 September 1896

Photo: the moment of impact of the train crash at Crush, Texas, on 15 September 1896. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

According to this front-page newspaper report:

It was more than a collision. Both engines were completely telescoped and in spite of all precautions both boilers promptly exploded, hurling a shower of iron and steel for several hundred yards around, injuring [nine] persons, two seriously and two perhaps fatally.

article about the train crash at Crush, Texas, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 16 September 1896

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 16 September 1896, page 1

With death and destruction all around them you would assume that those in attendance dispersed right away, fleeing for the safety of home. But no—just like today, not only did people get closer to inspect the damage, they took pieces of the train home as souvenirs and had their photo taken next to the wreckage. Composer Scott Joplin even wrote a song about the event, one he appropriately entitled the “Great Crush Collision March.”*

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Eyewitness Accounts in the News

Sixty years after the crash, the Dallas Morning News published eyewitness accounts that recounted everything from the infamous Texas train crash itself to the souvenirs taken from the wreckage. One man, Clitus Jones, stated that a hunk of the train metal was used in his childhood Waco home as a doorstop.

eyewitness accounts of the train crash at Crush, Texas, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 6 May 1956

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 6 May 1956, section 3, page 1

William G. Crush

William G. Crush, the man responsible for the crash, was immediately fired. However, after there wasn’t a huge public uproar over the catastrophe, the Katy hired Crush back the very next day—and he continued working for the railroad and retired after 46 years of service.

obituary for William G. Crush, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 13 April 1943

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 13 April 1943, page 4

His obituary stated:

The [train crash] exhibition was never repeated, but Mr. Crush was shot into wide renown among railroad men for his keen sense of exploitation.

But Wait, There’s More!

While Crush’s train-crashing days ended as soon as they started, that wasn’t the end of watching train wrecks as entertainment. Other train crashes were staged across the country, including the annual train wreck at the California State Fair from 1913-1917. You can watch a video of the 1913 train crash, complete with the engineer jumping to safety, on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/Californ1913. Fast forward to the 5:00 mark to see the crash scenes.

Did our ancestors enjoy a staged train crash? It would appear so, but in retrospect that isn’t any stranger than modern audiences enjoying action-packed movie crashes or a demolition derby. If there’s one thing history teaches us, it’s that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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* For a look at the music from the March and an audio recording, see The Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections Blog article “Scott Joplin’s ‘Great Crush Collision March’ and the Memorialization of a Marketing Spectacle” at: http://blogs.baylor.edu/digitalcollections/2012/04/19/scott-joplin%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%9Cgreat-crush-collision-march-and-the-memorialization-of-a-marketing-spectacle/

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Remembering James Dean, Woody Guthrie & Janis Joplin with Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott looks up profiles, news stories and obituaries in old newspapers to learn more about these three famous entertainers who died this week in American history.

During this week in history (30 September to 4 October) America lost three of its most iconic entertainment personalities. America, and indeed the whole world, lost film actor James Dean in 1955, singer Woody Guthrie in 1967, and singer Janis Joplin in 1970.

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

James Dean (1931-1955)

Although he only starred in three movies in his short lifetime, James Dean was already being compared to Marlon Brando when he died. In 1955 Dean shot to stardom as a result of his starring role of Cal Trask in East of Eden, which earned him the first-ever posthumous nomination for an Academy Award. For most of us today, James Dean is best known for his role as Jim Stark in Rebel without a Cause. At the time of his death, Dean had just finished filming his now-famous role as Jett Rink in the film Giant, and had set off in his Porsche sports car to indulge in his passion for car racing at a racetrack in Salinas, California, in the upcoming weekend. Dean never made it to Salinas.

How did James Dean die so young? As you can read in this article from a 1955 Texas newspaper, a tragic automobile accident claimed the life of James Dean at the age of only 24.

Car Collision Kills Actor James Dean, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 1 October 1955

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 1 October 1955, page 1

Then just two days later, the Dallas Morning News again reported on the Dean tragedy, this time focusing on his funeral to be held in Dean’s home town of Fairmount, Indiana.

Funeral Services for Dean Planned in Indiana Saturday, Dallas Morning News newspaper article, 3 October 1955

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 3 October 1955, page 18

This newspaper article not only provides a fascinating look at the early life of James Dean, but also reports the stark reactions of his costars such as Elizabeth Taylor, who “took it the hardest” and was “crying unashamedly.”

I always thought James Dean was buried in Hollywood; now that I know he lies at rest just a couple hours from my home, I will be taking a future road trip to pay my respects to this marvelous actor and icon of youth angst. Interesting note: this same small Indiana town is also the hometown of another American cultural icon, Jim Davis, the cartoonist and creator of “Garfield.”

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

While some folks reading this might be more familiar with Arlo, the son of Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie, many musicians and music historians would agree with the claim in this 1971 New Jersey newspaper article that Woody is “generally considered America’s greatest balladeer.”

Okie Folk Poet [Woody Guthrie] Loved Underdog, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 27 June 1971

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 27 June 1971, page 102

Woody Guthrie wrote more than 1,000 songs, of which more than 400 are preserved in the Library of Congress (and dozens of which populate my iPad). He also wrote an autobiography Bound for Glory(also on my iPad), and has been acknowledged as a major musical influence on such modern-day musicians as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens of others. His best known musical piece might well be “This Land Is Your Land.”

When he succumbed to his 15-year battle with Huntington’s disease on 3 October 1967, the news of Guthrie’s death was carried from coast-to-coast. This obituary from a 1967 Louisiana newspaper makes note of a fact still true about Woody today: “Many persons heard Guthrie’s songs without ever knowing his name. Among those who have recorded Woody’s songs are Bing Crosby, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra, and Peter, Paul, and Mary.”

Folk-Singer [Woody] Guthrie Dies, Times-Picayune newspaper obituary, 4 October 1967

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 4 October 1967, page 8

Being a born and raised Clevelander (home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), it was especially nice to read a 1987 news article from my hometown Cleveland newspaper that reported the 1988 Class of inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: not only was Woody Guthrie being honored—but also a singer whom he greatly influenced, Bob Dylan.

Lads, Boys, Girls, Bob [Dylan] in Hall, Plain Dealer newspaper article 28 October 1987

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 28 October 1987, page 83

Oh, and just in case you are a fan of the website FindAGrave.com, I’ll let you in on a “secret.” There may be a memorial stone to Woody in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, but Woody’s not there. His ashes were actually spread at Coney Island, New York.

Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

The year was 1970. America was at war; the Vietnam War was raging in its 11th year. The fight over the war raged across our nation’s home front. The divisions that this war caused throughout America were evident in families, public protests, college campuses, and beyond. Rock and roll music was a boiling caldron fueled by many of these divisions (for instance my parents would not allow rock and roll in my house). Into this scene burst some of America’s most noted rock artists.

One of these was one of my personal favorites, Janis Joplin. Her name is forever welded to “Mercedes Benz” in my mind, a song she recorded just two days before her untimely death in 1970 at the age of only 27. As you can see it was Page One news in this 1970 article from a Texas newspaper.

Singer Janis Joplin Found Dead in Hotel, Dallas Morning News newspaper obituary 5 October 1970

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 5 October 1970, page 1

As you can imagine there followed numerous articles that mourned the loss of this one-of-a-kind singer. Other newspapers seized the occasion to rail away at the excesses of America’s youth.

This 1970 article from a North Carolina newspaper reported that Janis had signed her will only three days before her death, and left half her estate to her parents and one quarter each to her brother and sister.

Janis Joplin Left Estate to Family, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 22 October 1970

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 22 October 1970, page 11

Janis had a unique voice and style. In this 1969 article from a California newspaper, reporter Carol Olten had this to say about Janis: “Janis Joplin never leaves doubts in anyone’s mind about being THE rock ’n’ roll woman. Any musicians who appear on stage with her have been more or less reduced to mashed potatoes.”

Janis Joplin Here Saturday, San Diego Union newspaper article 28 September 1969

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 28 September 1969, page 78

Janis was indeed quite the woman of rock and roll. As reported in this 1994 article from an Illinois newspaper, she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the 1995 Class of inductees.

[Janis] Joplin, [Frank] Zappa Join Hall of Fame, Register Star newspaper article 17 November 1994

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 17 November 1994, page 35

By the way, whenever you are in Cleveland, Ohio, pay a visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Famewhere you can see some of Janis’s memorabilia and a whole lot more. From personal experience, I suggest you allow at least two days for your visit!

Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover about your family and favorite celebrities!