Monday, February 18, 2013

How to create demand for your transportation service - give people somewhere to go (Crush, Texas)

Shared transportation services only work if the people using the service have somewhere to go. Planes that fly to Honolulu, Hawaii attract passengers. Planes that fly to Lusk, Wyoming don't attract that many passengers.

Sometimes, people will use a transportation service to get to a particular event. Until a couple of years ago, I had never even heard of the city of Sochi. Next year, people will be flocking to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, and that city will be very, very busy for a few weeks.

But what if the transportation service itself were to set up an event? An event that would last, say, for...a few minutes?

If the event is spectacular enough, the people will come. But they may get more than they bargained for.

In the late 1800s, the most popular form of transportation in the United States was train travel. You could get anywhere in the country by train, and the people who owned the railroad lines were making a lot of money. This resulted in a lot of resentment, as Allen Lee Hamilton has noted:

[This was] a time of economic distress when railroads symbolized to many the evils of the big business "octopus" and were a target of attack for populist politicians.

So there was a large group of people who would enjoy seeing something really bad happen to the railroads. And there was someone who was prepared to give this to the people. Brilliantly, if you wanted to see this spectacle, you had to use the railroad to get there. Win-win; what could go wrong?

The idea of the "Monster Crash" was conceived by William George Crush, passenger agent for the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad, also known as the Katy. Allen Lee Hamilton continues:

In 1895 Crush proposed to Katy officials that the company stage a train wreck as an attraction; he planned to advertise the event months in advance, sell tickets to transport spectators to and from the site on Katy trains, and then run two old locomotives head-on into each other. The officials agreed.

The event itself did not occur until September 15, 1896, after months of publicity. Two brightly-colored trains were displayed throughout Texas. Four miles of special track were laid (they didn't want the train wreck to happen on a track that was used by other trains). Discount $2 tickets to get to the site were sold. Ringling Brothers tents were procured, and a special depot was built for the temporary town of Crush, Texas, named after George Crush, who had conceived the entire idea. Donald Trump would be proud.

And, like Trump, Crush certainly knew how to generate publicity for an event named after him. This August, 1896 newspaper article quotes Crush:

I can't make the exact spot known yet, but fifty excursion trains will unload big loads there on Sept. 1st (15th), the day that we have chosen for the two big passenger engines pulling six cars each to come together. The spot affords a straight away track, where each engine can have two miles start, that they may gain a speed of 60 or 65 miles an hour before coming together. The site is between Waco and Hillsboro and is a natural amphitheater that will hold 250,000 persons, and all will be in full view of the track.

It will be a great smash-up, something exciting and interesting, and will be a great value from a scientific point of view. You can't imagine the excitement attendant upon such an occurrence. The papers have such happenings almost every day. A man when he starts to travel insures his life against them; he chooses his seat with the idea of being exposed to the least possible danger and sleeps with one eye open, but few people have ever seen the actual occurrence.

One eye open - those words would come back to haunt Crush later. But at the time, he was still in promotional mode:

We are going to have it in all of its details except the passengers. No one will be on board either of the trains. Tests will be made as to time and speed so that the engines will come together within 50 feet of a given point. This will be on of the main line. Thirty-five or forty minutes after the collision two large wrecking trains which will be on hand will have the trains cleared away....

Finally, the day arrived. Hamilton:

The first of thirty-three fully loaded excursion trains arrived at daybreak on September 15, and by 3:00 P.M. more than 40,000 people were on the grounds picnicking, listening to political speeches, and waiting for the great crash.

The two trains were positioned at opposite ends of the four-mile track. The start was delayed for several hours, however, to ensure that people were kept a safe distance from the spot where the collision would occur. The two trains were started, and the engineers jumped off the trains before the crash occurred. Engineers had been consulted, and officials had been assured that the possibility of a boiler explosion was remote. What could go wrong? Perfesser Bill Edwards:

The 90 mph collision (each train was traveling at least 45 mph)...was spectacular as promised. In spite of precautions that were taken, including Crush interviewing many mechanics about possibility of boiler explosions, both boilers exploded and three spectators were killed while many more were injured from the debris. The photographer, Joe Deane lost an eye from a flying bolt.

Which made it twice as difficult for Deane, in Crush's words, to sleep with one eye open.

Naturally, after a disaster of this magnitude, George Crush was unceremoniously fired.

And hired back again. According to a 1930 list of railroaders, Crush remained as a passenger agent and traffic manager for several decades thereafter. However, his subsequent endeavors weren't quite as spectacular. As of 1906, his promotions looked like this:

Let us Arrange Your SUMMER TOURS. Your comfort our first consideration. The MK AND T MISSOURI, KANSAS & TEXAS R'Y. Address W. G. Crush G.P.aT.A. Dallas, TEX.

The railroad itself was merged with the Union Pacific in 1988. You may recall that there was a train crash in Texas last year during a veterans parade; this crash, of course, was NOT a planned occurrence.

As for the one-day "town" of Crush, Texas? The debris was removed, and the incident was almost forgotten.

By midnight the town of Crush, which had grown to the second largest town in Texas, amounted to nothing more than scraps of red and green metal pieces, mud, and pools of lemonade served at the event....

More than 100 years later the location is occupied by cows on the prairie, and there is hardly any indication that the event ever took place save for the historical marker that was placed at the roadside in 1976.

I was unable to find a picture of the historical marker that I could commercially post on this blog, but you can find one here. The marker reads:

A head-on collision between two locomotives was staged on Sept. 15, 1896, as a publicity stunt for the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad. Over 30,000 spectators gathered at the crash site, named "crush" for MKT passenger agent William G. Crush, who conceived the idea. About 4 p.m. the trains were sent speeding toward each other. Contrary to mechanics' predictions, the steam boilers exploded on impact, propelling pieces of metal into the crowd. Two persons were killed and many others injured, including Jarvis Deane of Waco, who was photographing the event. (1976)

P.S. I wasn't able to work this into the blog post, but here's an extra link for your listening pleasure.
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