Everyone loves a good train wreck
I wrote a song about hype, sycophancy, and the perils of morbid curiosity
The train engines kissed. A hundred yards away in the middle of Texas nowhere, Jervis C. Deane clicked the shutter and captured the definitive image from the moment of impact.
And then the boilers exploded, and all hell broke loose.
The staged-but-real train crash at Crush, Texas, took place on Sept. 15, 1896. It was a sordid spectacle worthy of Barnum and Bailey. Indeed, its mastermind, Katy Railroad vice president’s assistant Willie Crush, was reportedly a friend of P.T. Barnum’s. It was, above all, a stupid and reckless publicity stunt.
At the time, the Missouri, Kansas, & Texas Railway Company (M.K.T., or “Katy” Railroad for short) was looking to retire some old steam locomotives, but was having a hard time finding buyers amid the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893. Looking to offload some engines and drum up some business, Crush had made a proposal: Let’s crash two of them together and sell tickets to watch.
With a few notable dissenters, train engineers had assured Willie Crush’s bosses that this was a fabulous idea and no one would be hurt. Sycophancy, it seems, is a timeless career path.
After weeks of saturated advertising and the sort of overheated media coverage today reserved for iPhone releases or the Yeezus tour, on September 15, 1896, an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people rode the Katy Line out to the makeshift town of Crush, Texas, erected 15 miles north of Waco with bandstands and pulpits and a real working jail. The sun beat down on the curious Texans with customary mercilessness.
After a festive day full of sauerkraut and side shows and preaching, Crush rode out on a horse — a white or a black one, depending whose account you believe — and did the dance that showmen do. It was begun.
So: Two 35-ton steam engines, each pulling six cars, traveling in opposite directions at 58 miles per hour. I don’t know, you do the math.
When the trains met, they telescoped and merged into a sort of singularity, which promptly detonated with the force of two overworked boilers. The brimstone of the industrial age rained down hot and deadly as the assembled Texans tried, and mostly failed, to run away. The shrapnel killed three people and injured dozens.
Among the injured: Jervis C. Deane, the photographer with the impeccable timing. A bolt tore out his right eye. With hot metal embedded in his brain, Deane reportedly stood, dusted himself off, and gave his two brothers “minute directions about the finishing of the pictures he had taken.”
For his trouble, Deane received a $10,000 settlement and a lifelong pass to ride the Katy Line. He went right back to work and bought a newspaper ad: “Having gotten all the loose screws and other hardware out of my head, am now ready for all photographic business.” He shot photos until 1901.
Facing a passel of lawsuits, the Katy Railroad fired Crush, then quietly rehired him. Ridership on the Katy picked up, thanks in part to the publicity. Nobody learned a damn thing from any of this.
A romantic gloss can make historical carnage seem quaint or even necessary. The price we pay for a good show, or arrogance, or freedom. Firebombs over Dresden, atom bombs over Japan, smart bombs over Afghan hospitals and Iraqi wedding parties. “Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands!”
But none of the bloodshed was ever inevitable. Crush’s bosses could have heeded the honest engineers in the room, the ones warning them that they were about to sacrifice fellow men on the altar of commerce.
In all of this, the character of Jervis Deane strikes me as the most sympathetic. Maybe it’s because I’m a journalist by trade, but I see some nobility in the man standing up there on the press platform, using all the cunning and technology at his disposal to capture the most enduring image of the day’s news.
Was he complicit in the machinery of hype that ground down human bodies that day in the Texas sun? Maybe. But if he was, he paid the price for it almost immediately with an eye — a twist of fate that would seem like a bit of maudlin storytelling if it weren’t a matter of historic record. I want to imagine Jervis happy during the remaining years of his career, as Camus imagined Sisyphus.
As an Americana-inflected songwriter with a pathetic tendency toward nostalgia, I suppose I would have given in to the temptation to write a song about a train sooner or later. Let “Crush, TX,” be my train song. Let this album be our meager entry in the long canon of songs about death, love, and the possibility of renewal of the spirit.
Truth is not beauty, nor beauty truth. Jervis Deane and his camera did not fold all that wreckage into an origami flower. They told the story: The impact, the momentum, the implication that someone set all this in motion and is guilty of what happened next. There were other photographers on the scene, including one who was knocked unconscious by a piece of flying wood. Their photographs showed the two trains sidling up to one another for a photo opp; they showed the moment of incoherent combustion; they showed the crowd of onlookers surging toward the wreckage once the smoke had cleared to grab souvenir bits of scalding scrap. But none of them captured the damning moment quite like Deane. Hats off to the man.
A final volley of questions, and then I’m going to bed: Is it possible that all those old murder ballads weren’t romanticizing their subject matter? Or if they were, is it possible to sand the varnish off and sing the truth more plainly? Does the blood in the soil still cry out for justice?
I had a hard time writing this week, so the above essay is republished from three years ago, when my old band The Camellias put out an album called Against Nostalgia. I wrote this as a sort of liner note and an explanation of the cover art, which was made from an archival photo by Jervis C. Deane and designed by my friend Scott Suchy.
The Waco Tribune-Herald had a nice recap of the Crash at Crush story last month, occasioned by the 123-year anniversary of the event and the release of a new book on the subject by Mike Cox.
If you want to read more about the Crash at Crush, I recommend this Historynet article by J.R. Sanders and the book Blowback: An Anecdotal Look at Pressure Equipment and Other Harmless Devices That Can Kill You! by Paul Brennan. They were both helpful in writing this song.
I am still writing songs, a habit I haven’t been able to break since college. I don’t know exactly what to do with them. Here’s a recent one called “Crooked Cross.”