Demolition Derby with Steam Locomotives
In the golden age of Steam Trains 1896 to 1932, before television was invented, Americans passed their time staging elaborate locomotive crashes. Engineers would set off two trains speeding towards each other on a mile long stretch of railway and jump off at the last minute, narrowly avoiding the resulting carnage.
One of the first staged train crashes was in May 1896 at Buckeye Park near Lancaster, Ohio where over 20,000 spectators attended. It was free to view but the organisers made a lot of money on the $2 train tickets people bought to get to the crash zone.
But the most famous organised train crash was near the appropriately named town of Waco, between Dallas and Houston in Texas. The ‘Crush Crash’ was a publicity stunt led by William Crush of Katy Railroad and the site of the crash was named after him. It was a grand event with a circus, lemonade stands, a grandstand, carnival games and lemonade stands. 40,000 people attended (about the same as the population of Dallas at the time).
Unfortunately it went badly wrong. Even though the engineers promised that it would be safe, the locomotives struck with such force (a combined speed of 90mph) that the boilers exploded upon impact. The explosion sent white hot pieces of shrapnel hundreds of metres into the air which rained down on the spectators causing numerous injuries and at least 2 deaths. A photographer was blinded when a nut flew into his eye. One spectator called it “more terrifying that the battle of Gettysburg.”
Meanwhile, as soon as the spectators realised they were still alive, they clambered up onto the mangled train wreck where the engines had collapsed like a concertina, to salvage smouldering souvenirs.
Crush was sacked on the spot and the railway company had to settle several law suits with injured and killed spectators, giving away lifetime railway passes and $10,000 in compensation ($311,000 in today’s money).
Despite the disaster it turned out to be a massive success, Crush was reinstated and many more train crashes were staged until 1930s.
Professional Train-wreck organiser “Head-On Joe” Connolly organised around 100 train crashes between 1896-1932. Each time he tried to make the crash more exciting by attaching dynamite to the front of the trains or filling the carriages with petrol so that they would burst into flames as the train crashed.
The Great Depression put an end the train wrecking as it was deemed wasteful but some crashes are still organised for movies.
One of the most recent staged train crashes took place in 2021 in Derbyshire, England where Tom Cruise had a mock-steam engine built and driven over a cliff for the new Mission Impossible film.
Stuff You Should Know – An incomplete compendium of mostly interesting things – Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant