Guest Lecture – February 2015


The Crash At Crush

(Presented by guest Lecturer Tom Greco)

[dropcaps] B [/dropcaps] usiness was slow for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (M, K & T) Railroad during the summer of 1896. The company took its name from the states it connected and, because its last two initials were K. and T., it was known far and wide as the “Katy.” The railroad turned to its general passenger and ticket agent in Dallas for a solution.

w-george-crushWilliam George Crush was born on July 3, 1865 in Louisville, Ky., and “went railroading” there at the age of 23. He was well suited to the work and hired out with the Katy at Denison in 1893 as general passenger agent for Texas. By 1896, he was in Dallas and in charge of passenger traffic sales for the entire railroad. His response to management’s challenge was pure genius, spread the Katy’s fame far and wide … and gave the railroad a bit of a black eye from which it recovered in short order. What he planned was unheard of before or since in Texas – a staged, head-on train collision.

Searching for a likely spot for the event, Crush picked a location about five miles south of the town of West, Texas, a spot that you can see from the Wiggins Road exit off I-35. About a quarter-mile east of the highway, Wiggins Road crosses the Katy, now part of the Union Pacific System. From that grade crossing, the track rises steadily for a mile in each direction. Our ever-modest hero named the place after himself, christening it “Crush, Texas” and set about orchestrating the great event, which he planned for Sept. 15, 1896.

In the Katy’s “boneyard,” Crush found two old locomotives that had been retired in favor of heavier and more powerful machines. He had them refurbished; one was painted bright red, the other deep green. He gathered enough old freight cars to make up two short trains that toured the Katy’s lines in Texas and Oklahoma emblazoned with gaudy advertising for what was now billed as “The Crash at Crush.” The fare to see this once-in-a-lifetime event from anyplace in Texas on the Katy was $2.

Meanwhile, from the quiet cotton field south of West, a town was rising. Two wells were dug to supply water to several hundred faucets, a circus tent from Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey was erected, and grandstands were built. Concessionaires paid for the privilege of selling their wares, and politicians spoke at Crush, Texas – for one day. There was even a small jail in anticipation of any beer-fueled misconduct that might occur. A two-mile spur was built parallel with and some distance from the Katy’s main line at Crush so that the big event wouldn’t disrupt the railroad’s regular freight and passenger traffic.

Crush did his homework. He had conferred with the Katy’s mechanical officials, who assured him the crash could be pulled off safely. Only one old-timer, a shop foreman in Dallas, felt that the boilers of the locomotives might explode on impact, a bit of advice that William Crush chose to ignore. Although the crowds would be allowed to inspect the trains throughout the day, barriers would keep them at a safe distance when the main event occurred. Only a photographer from Waco was allowed close to the tracks, taking up a position in a tower-like structure rather like a deer stand.

As Sept. 15, 1896 dawned, Crush’s great plan began to come together exactly as planned. Thirty-three trains arrived from points as far north as Parsons, Kan., and as far south as Galveston, disgorging a flood of spectators. The event was planned for 4 p.m. and, by mid-afternoon, the population of Crush, Texas was estimated at nearly 40,000, making it for one day the second largest “city” in Texas. Police had trouble moving the crowd a safe distance back from the track, so it was 5 p.m. when the two trains pulled slowly into view, the engines touching pilots as two boxers might touch gloves before a fight. Then, the two trains began backing slowly away from one another until each was one mile from the point of collision.

The plan was elegant in its simplicity, and it worked perfectly. William George Crush rode to center stage on a beautiful, white stallion. At his signal, the engineer on each train opened the throttle to the second notch. They and their firemen counted 16 exhausts (i.e. “chugs”), or four revolutions of the driving wheels, at which time the trains would still be moving slowly enough for the crews to get off safely.

The folk song “The Crash at Crush” by Texas songwriter Brian Burns best describes what happened next: “The engines met with a thunderous crash and climbed each other to the sky.” But seconds later, the old-timer’s prophecy came true, and the boilers of both engines exploded, propelling debris far and wide.

Three people were killed outright with many more injured, including photographer Jarvis “Joe” Deane of Waco, who lost an eye. In an effort at what we’d now call “damage control,” William George Crush was fired on the spot. But the Katy had made so much money from the event that he was hired back the very next day and worked for the line until 1940.

So, why is this story of interest to a Knights of Columbus gathering?

On Saturday, April 20, 1901, William Crush, undoubtedly riding on his employee pass, arrived in Parsons, Kan., a major yard and junction point for the Katy. He was accompanied by two friends, Michael J. Carver, president of the Dallas Show Case Co., and Fr. James M. Hayes, rector of the Dallas cathedral. They returned to Texas as the first Knights of Columbus in the state.

In May 1906, the Fourth Degree was established in Texas, when Crush and several other Texans received the honors of the degree in Denver, where Fr. Joseph P. Lynch, later Bishop Lynch of Dallas, preached the sermon. A new jurisdiction of the Fourth Degree was then created that included the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Louisiana. Sir William George Crush was appointed its first Master.

William George Crush lived to be nearly 78 years old. He died on April 12, 1943 at his home in Highland Park. He is buried in Calvary Hill Cemetery in Dallas.