This week’s entry: Crush, Texas
What it’s about: Cities, once they’re founded, tend to stick around. Damascus is believed to have been founded 11,000 years ago. More than a million people live in Hiroshima, 73 years after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on its inhabitants. But Crush, Texas, did not have a long life. In fact, despite having a population of 40,000 people, the town existed for only one day. It was established for the sake of a publicity stunt, in which two trains were intentionally crashed head-on, making it the original pop-up shop.
Biggest controversy: As virtually anyone, apart from the event’s organizers, could have predicted, seeing a train crash up close is incredibly dangerous. The two trains collided at 45 mph, the crew of each having set the speed and then jumped ship well before the collision. The impact caused both boilers to explode, sending debris hundreds of feet in the air, raining down on the crowd. Two or three people were killed, and at least six more were injured. A photographer documenting the event lost an eye, and was paid $10,000 in damages.
Strangest fact: Crush wasn’t named for the fate of the trains. The idea of setting up a town to host the event was the brainchild of Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad employee William George Crush. Crush was fired immediately after the crash, but was rehired the next day when the MKT found there wasn’t any kind of public outcry, and that the stunt had, in fact, earned the railroad a lot of good publicity. Back then, it seems, people were willing to sacrifice a few lives for the sake of a good show.
Side note: The MKT was nicknamed the “Katy,” for the initials KT, as referenced in the song “She Caught The Katy,” probably best known as the opening number of The Blues Brothers.
Thing we were happiest to learn: For the day it existed, the town of Crush was happenin’. The crash drew a crowd of 40,000, making it the second-largest city in Texas. It’s not clear which was number one, as both Houston and Dallas held fewer than 40,000 at the 1890 census, and more by 1900. But all three cities were comparable, at least for one day, and Austin had about a third of the population of Crush at the time.
A carnival environment built up around the crash, with games, stands selling food and lemonade, medicine shows, and other sideshows. Amusements from the Midway Plaisance in Chicago were brought to Crush and may have been as big a draw as the trains.
Also noteworthy: At least one person found the Crush crash inspiring. Only-ragtime-composer-you-can-name Scott Joplin was in the area, and possibly in Crush itself, at the time of the crash. To commemorate it, he wrote “Great Crush Collision March,” copyrighted only a month after the event, the 1896 equivalent of CSNY releasing “Ohio” less than a month after the Kent State shooting. Joplin’s score included detailed instructions on how to play the song in a way that evoked the crash.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: With the exception of love, there might not be a more common subject for songs than trains. In the days before interstate highways, trains were the most common form of transportation for musicians, and hobos who rode the rails for free wrote songs about their experiences that became part of a grand folk tradition. Much like stand-up comedians doing jokes about airline food, songwriters can’t help mining their travel time for material. Which is why Wikipedia’s list of train songs (not to be confused with a list of songs by the blandly awful ’00s band Train) has more than 1,000 entries, from “The Carrollton March,” composed two full years before the first public railroad in the U.S., to “Chattanooga Choo Choo” to “Take The A Train” to “Crazy Train.”
Further down the Wormhole: While William George Crush is not widely remembered, despite his town’s brief notoriety, there is an extensive list of notable people from Texas, from original Texan Stone Cold Stephen F. Austin to stereotypically BBQ-loving, six-gun-firing, “yee-haw”-shouting Wes Anderson. One Texan who’s suddenly back in the news is Leon Jaworski, the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, who stepped in after President Nixon fired previous special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Watergate was a political scandal from a simpler time, when we hired hard-working Americans to spy on Democrats instead of getting foreigners to do it. But Richard Nixon was also involved in a scandal of a yet simpler time, which he deflected with the famous Checkers speech. Next week we’ll revisit an era when political scandals involved adorable puppies, not pee tapes and pussy grabbing.