I suspect that if you were to ask a random person when demolition derbies first started, most people would probably pause for a moment before asking you to drive them to the nearest library, where they’d sequester themselves in a carrel surrounded by books, and emerge a few hours later with a hypothesis like the mid-to-late 1940s, citing postwar prosperity and a significant inventory of old crappy cars built up since the 1910s and 1920s serviceable for such destructive use. In that case, you can gleefuly smack their pages of notes to the floor and laugh, because smashing vehicles for entertainment is way, way older. And involved freaking trains.
Okay, these earlier vehicle-smashing-for-entertainment events weren’t really demolition derbies as such, just staged, head-on collisions of massive locomotives, which is, arguably, far more bonkers.
The first of these seems to have started in 1895—in fact, between 1895 and 1896 more than one massive locomotive-smashing events were going on, and they kept on happening into the 1930s.
The first 1895 staged locomotive wreck was planned and staged by a railroad equipment salesman named A.L. Streeter. This first attempt was to happen in Canton, Ohio, as a publicity stunt for the struggling Cleveland, Canton and Southern Railroad.
Despite fences being set up to keep crowds a safe distance away, and to try and insure that spectators paid for their tickets, things quickly grew out of control and people swarmed over the fence, leading to the cancellation of the crash for safety reasons, something virtually unheard of back then, it seems.
Interestingly, the trains were named Protection and Free Trade after competing economic theories at the time, I suppose in an attempt to add an extra element of current-event relevance to the show?
It didn’t take long in time or space for another attempt to be tried, this time in 1896, near Columbus, Ohio, at a recreational park built called Buckeye Park by the local railroad. This time, Streeter’s big smashy dream came true, as this time it worked, and a pair of outdated locomotives, each pulling three cars and weighing around 35 tons, slammed into each other, allegedly for “scientific purposes” but really just a big, loud publicity stunt.
One spectator had a knee shattered by a flying bolt, but other than that the event was a, um, smashing success. It was big, loud, thrilling, and sure as hell brought the needed attention for the railroad.
It was such a success that one the next year boasted six new staged train collisions, perhaps the most notable of which was the one that started the wildly on-the-nose-named William George Crush’s career.
Crush worked for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (known as the Katy Railroad) and staged the wreck in a purpose-built ersatz town named Crush near Waco, Texas.
Crush made money for the railroad by making a deal where anyone could ride the train for two bucks from anywhere in Texas to see the wreck.
Railroad engineers built a special four-mile section of track to house the spectacle, and when the event happened on September 15, 1896, 40,000 people showed up, making the “town” of Crush the second-largest city in Texas, at least for a little while.
Crush consulted engineers to confirm that the high-pressure boilers of the locomotives would survive the wreck, and was assured they would.
“There was a swift instance of silence, and then, as if controlled by a single impulse, both boilers exploded simultaneously and the air was filled with flying missiles of iron and steel varying in size from a postage stamp to half a driving wheel.”
Also from the book:
“Scalding steam and red hot iron poured from the sky...one Confederate veteran said the smoke, explosions, and people falling all around him was more frightening than Pickett’s Last Charge at Gettysburg.”
The photographer hired for the event lost an eye when a flying bolt lodged in his head. Thomas Edison even sent out an assistant with an early Kinetoscope movie camera, though the footage has been lost to time.
It was absolute carnage, and as a result, Crush was fired from the railroad.
Of course, the next day railroad officials realized that the people who weren’t murdered by flying train bits had a hell of a time, and re-hired Crush.
Crush’s event may be the most infamous, but the most prolific train-smasher was Joe Connolly, known as “head-on Joe” because he staged over 70 train wrecks, leaving a mechanical body count of 146 locomotives.
Conolly was sort of a visionary of mass-market entertainment, with a rare and candid insight into what sorts of things people really want to watch:
“I believed that somewhere in the makeup of every normal person there lurks the suppressed desire to smash things up.”
The man pretty much predicted the entire genre of action movies.
Connolly staged his first train smash-up at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, 1896.
Connolly used two 40-ton locomotives from the Des Moines Northern & Western railroad, and named one the Silver Bug and one the Gold Bug, once again because of competing economic theories of the era, since there was a debate as to whether the U.S. should be on the gold or silver standard to back up its currency.
I’m baffled why naming doomed trains after economic theories was such a thing; would we have seen the mighty locomotive Communism run into the behemoth Capitalism if the train-smashing trend continued into the 1950s? Is this how economic policy was decided back then? If so, economics was a hell of a lot more fun.
A much later staged wreck named the locomotives Hoover and Roosevelt, giving a nice political element to the train-smashing. There’s actual footage of this one, even:
Iowa Public Television shot a nice little segment about Connolly, too:
The Great Depression and the perceived wastefulness of wrecking functional machinery effectively killed the train-smashing craze. There really hasn’t been anything like them since, and, considering the very non-trivial liabilities, are unlikely to be ever again.
It’s worth thinking about what these events must have been like; steam trains have the size and mass of medium-sized buildings, and two of them barreling at one another at around 50 mph had to be a terrifying and awe-inspiring sight.
So, remember, before you condemn modern society for our love of action movies and violent entertainment and generally blowing shit up, remember that our forbearers were not immune to the loud, dangerous delight of a good disaster, and, in an era before special effects or even movies, proved willing to go to absolutely absurd lengths to get their fix of giant machines smashing one another to bits.