Staged Train Wrecks: An Idea That Ran Out Of Steam

Before there were demolition derbies, there were train totalings. That’s right, somebody had the idea to take a couple of worn-out train engines that were ready for the scrap heap, point them at each other, and drive them full steam ahead. And their boss said capital idea, let’s do it. This was the late 1890s.

Maybe it wasn’t the safest way to spend an evening, but a staged train wreck was surely an awesome spectacle to behold. Imagine being one of the brave engineers who had no choice but to get the train going as fast as possible and then jump out at the last second. A demolition derby seems like child’s play by comparison.

The largest and most widely-publicized wreck was put on by a man named William George Crush who was trying to find new ways to promote the Missouri-Kansas-Texas passenger railway. Once he got the okay, Crush found a large field surrounded by three hills that made for excellent viewing. He stood up a temporary town complete with a circus tent restaurant, a wooden jail cell, and 200 rent-a-constables.

On September 15th, 1896, forty thousand people gathered to watch two trains collide along a section of purpose-built track. They hit each other going 50 mph (80 km/h) and both engines exploded, sending hot iron projectiles every which way. Several people were injured, a few died, and a hired photographer lost an eye to shrapnel. Train totalings nevertheless continued until the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the practice was discarded as wasteful.

Thanks for the tip, [Martin]!

35 thoughts on “Staged Train Wrecks: An Idea That Ran Out Of Steam

      1. Those Flasks are built so strong! My dad used to be charge of the fuel route process for a UK power station and used to tell me how they held such a small amount of fuel versus the amount of casement there was

    1. Wandering slightly off topic, I could be wrong, but the locomotive in that test looks like an old Deltic.

      These were known for having the most bizarre diesel engine ever, the “Napier Deltic”, a crazy machine with 3 crankshafts, 18 cylinders and 36 pistons, all geared together in a giant triangular block.

      I think they were originally designed to maximize power-to-weight ratio for use in WW-II patrol boats where they cranked out stupendous horsepower for the era. Then the war ended and there were a bunch of engines sitting around and someone said “Now… where can I use this thing….”

      1. Looks like a Deltic, not a Deltic though. I’m not saying the Deltic wasn’t an impressive machine, as kids, we used to make the trip on our bikes to the not quite nearby railway bridge to watch, listen and wave at the driver, trying to get them to blast the horn as they thundered past in all senses of the word on the main line at well over a hundred miles an hour despite 100 being the official top speed. Wish we’d had a camera capable of capturing all that!
        The crash locomotive was a class 46 (Deltics were class 55) specifically 46009 still impressive machines, just not quite so special.

  1. “Prior to the event, Crush had asked a number of Katy engineers about the dangers of crashing two locomotives. All of them but one said it was safe. The engineer who said the locomotives would explode was quickly dismissed as a negative naysayer.
    Crush was fired immediately after the crash, but after realizing that most people in attendance had a great time, the railroad rehired Crush the next day and he worked for the Katy until he retired.”

    The web site, and many others, exemplify this. That is, the dismissal of expert advice and warnings, and the adherence to the marketing principles of ‘click-bait’.

    1. Like when people went to car races with no fence between the crowd and the track. They still do that with rally races.

      One of the best rally crash videos ever shows a narrow, slightly downhill, street in a village with a sharp left turn bounded by a stone wall with no space between the wall and the road.

      The crowd is standing and cheering, looking *up* the course to see the oncoming cars. But there’s one kid, staring the other way, at that walled curve. He knows what’s going to happen. ;)

    1. There’s also a 1930 British film called The Wrecker which staged a crash on a genuine passenger line one sunday afternoon, set up a couple of dozen cameras to film it then brought in a huge gang of navvies to clear everything away and have the line ready for the next morning’s rush hour.

      Although in my opinion the best bit of pre-CGI effects is the dragon in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. They actually built a full-sized dragon operated by five men inside it and moved by another four pushing it up and down tracks.

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