Train Crashes at the State Fair
Summer is winding down, and August is now upon us. In a normal year, we would be preparing to make the trek down to a special place where we could enjoy whirling rides, the animal barns, a chili cook-off, and funnel cakes that seem tall as the Statue of Liberty! That’s right; we’re talking about the local fair. While many of us will not be able to enjoy all of these festivities at present, we can look back on a past attraction on the fair circuit that many may not remember; the head-on locomotive crash!
Fairs had been happening in the United States since before there was the United States! One of the first fairs was promoted by King George II in 1745 in Trenton, New Jersey, for the promotion of farm products and trading of livestock. As fairs continued to grow, more things were added and contained more moving elements. To make a fair successful, there needs to be a lot of good entertainment, and things need to stay fresh. This is where the railroads come into effect.
While it is true that for many years railroads have brought visitors to the fair, they seemed like just a way to get there and get back. What if the railroad could be the main feature in the fair? A few people began thinking about that near the end of the 19th century, and this idea would catch on big time.
While not a fair per se, what happened in 1896 would influence many fairs for years to come. In that year, Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, popularly known as the Katy Railroad, had a station agent and upcoming promoter named William Crush, who had an idea of how to provide entertainment to people and make a lot of money doing it. Crush proposed a stunt where two old locomotives would race toward each other, building upon the suspense crash right into each other in a plume of smoke and fire.
Setting what became known as the “Town of Crush, Texas” about 14 miles north of Waco, Crush built up a large infrastructure to promote his event. It contained many of the items that we now see at the fair, including food vendors, bands, carnival games, exhibit halls, to name the least. On top of that, the Katy Railroad charged a low ticket price of $2 (about $60 in today’s dollars) to travel to and from the show from anywhere in the state of Texas. Total crowd size was expected at 25,000; however, over 40,000 people are said to have attended, making Crush the second largest “city” in Texas at the time.
On September 15th, 1896, both locomotives came hurling down the tracks toward one another and collided at a combined speed of 90 mph. After a few turns of the wheels, the engineers jumped to safety, and when the trains smashed together, parts and pieces flew hundreds of feet in the air, and a large debris field was left. Two people died, and several dozen were injured. In fact, the photographer who took the famous crash photo lost an eye in the explosion. Crush was fired but rehired a few days later after the publicity generated shot ratings through the roof. Despite the injuries and danger involved, people liked seeing two trains crash into each other, and they wanted more.
At the Minnesota State Fair in 1920, over 55,000 people were in attendance as two speeding locomotives barreled down the track to their self-destruction. Steaming slowly up and down the brief stretch of track, the engines, piloted by W.D. Carrington and Harry Tatum, made several preliminary test trips.
With a shill blast of their whistles, the engines concentrated the crowd’s attention on the last trip they were to make. Carrington opened wide the throttle of engine “573,” she started forward, almost immediately gaining her maximum speed. He jumped quickly, but not quite fast enough. Landing heavily in the adjacent mudbank, he turned three complete somersaults, and struck his ankle against a boulder, spraining it. Meanwhile, Tatum had started No. 478 more slowly. But as he saw the other engine tearing down the track, he threw the throttle wide and swung to safety. The two engines, rushing inevitably toward each other, met almost squarely in the center of the track. There was a terrific explosion, and “478” crashed clean through the front of “573” and halted dead.
Then the fun began. Determined to get a close view, crowds decided to reach the scene of the collision at the same moment. Wire fences, wooden barriers, police officers with wildly waving arms were no barriers whatever to the thrall of onlookers turned souvenir hunters. Within two minutes, the racetrack, the central oval, and the fields beyond the track were black with people. Up and down the track and over the adjoining fields, the people ranged, hunting bits of wreckage for souvenirs. Soon there was little left that was not too heavy to be carried away.
One of the people to make a permanent job, if you will, out of smashing locomotives, was a gentleman named Joe Connolly. In a career lasting nearly 40 years, 1896 to 1932, Connolly was said to have staged 73 train wrecks for a total of 146 locomotives smashed, earning him the nickname ‘Head-On.’ When writing about Connolly, his biographer, Jim Reisdorff, said, “I guess the train wrecks appealed to the more primitive side of man — the thrill of seeing something destroyed, nowadays people go to demolition derbies.” Reisdorff also stated, “the railroads played a much bigger part in everyday life back then. Seeing something so familiar getting mangled was fascinating.”
Not all the crashes were spectacular. In Los Angeles in 1906, over 6,000 people were in attendance at a fair, where a massive train crash was promoted. It was supposed to be the biggest ever on display on the west coast. Promoted Walter Hempel ran out to the tracks as the crowd was getting riled up. He fired a gun six times into the air, and the crowd toned down, Hempel then dropped the white starting flag as he scrambled the 700 feet to safety where the crow lay.
The locomotives raced toward each other, smoke-spewing and steam hissing. Everyone looked forward to the eventful crash! Then it happened, and it was over. Not with a boiler explosion or a massive fireball, nor even an overturned engine. Just a clunk and a little movement as the two engines collided and a little bit of white smoke, and that was it. Many people were heard to utter the question, “Is that all?” When a boy climbed on one of the wrecks to ring the bell, it indicated that it was indeed all. After all the hype and commotion, it was just two machines colliding into each other as two grocery carts run into one another at the produce section of the supermarket.
While sometimes a flop, these orchestrated train wrecks can also turn a failing fair into a great draw. So is the case of the Iowa State Fair in 1932. Due to problems brought on partly by the Great Depression and failing agricultural enterprises, fair exhibits and entertainment had declined steadily over the years, especially in the Midwest. Fairs needed something that would draw large crowds and put revenue into state and local coffers, in steps Joe Connolly.
Always the promoter, Connolly turned the 1932 Iowa State Fair train crash into a presidential election year showdown, pitting a Roosevelt train vs. another named for Iowan Herbert Hoover.
In creating his train crash spectacles, Joe Connolly pushed a few of the key buttons required to generate some buzz. He staged an unusual, outrageous, and remarkable event and helped make the Iowa State Fair a modern-day must-do event.
Train crashes remained popular until the beginning of World War II when obsolete engines were either pressed back into service or scrapped, their valuable iron was used to make things for the war effort. Now only seen in photos or movies, the deliberate train wreck has gone the way of the steam engine, gone but not forgotten. Enjoy a few clips of train wrecks at the fair and other events with the links below and enjoy the rest of the summer.
Written by: Justin Lambrecht, education assistant