For most people, the name Scott Joplin brings up a common range of responses: ragtime music, the Maple Leaf Rag, and his opera Treemonisha. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone whose first reaction to hearing Joplin’s name would be, “Oh, he’s the guy who wrote the song about the staged train crash near Waco!” Strangely enough, that person would be just as correct as the rest of us.
While conducting contextual background research for the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, I came across a reference to the collection having been cited in the preface of a book entitled The Collected Works of Scott Joplin. I retrieved a copy from the Crouch Fine Arts Library holdings and began reading the preface, looking for a mention of the collection. In a section on Joplin’s early years, I read the following paragraphs:
In 1896 the Quartette toured Louisiana and Texas. In Temple, Texas, Joplin secured his first piano publications: Combination March and Harmony Club Waltz, both with the local imprint of Robert Smith; and The (Great) Crush Collision March, published by John R. Fuller.
The first two pieces are uneventful period pieces. Crush Collision March, however, is a period piece of a special sort. As much program music as a march, it is, strangely, ‘Dedicated to the M.K.&T. Ry.,” this being the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, which runs through Temple and there crosses the tracks of another line. The march describes a train wreck that, quite possibly, had recently occurred (otherwise, why the dedication?). Could there have been a wreck at the crossing in Temple? And could Joplin have added sound-effects and descriptive narrative to a piece already written but unpublished? Or had he quickly composed a work to fit the situation?
It was quite a surprise to me to discover that Joplin, a Texas-born composer and son of an emancipated slave, had written a song commemorating a marketing gimmick concocted to sell tickets on a regional railroad with deep ties to Central Texas. Though the editors’ guesses were incorrect, the actual story behind the piece is something so brazen, so unique that it bears much closer examination.
The Origins of the Crash
Beginning with the so-called Panic of 1893, the economy of the United States began a decade-long slide, with high unemployment, devalued currency, and the collapse of several major railroads epitomizing the dire situation. It was this last situation that indirectly led to the staging of the “Monster Crash” outside Waco.
As confidence in America’s railroad system eroded with the faltering economy, railroads began looking for ways to both boost their sagging bottom lines and provide some positive attention in an era when the over-extended growth of railroads was seen as a major cause of great personal financial insecurity. At the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (known to many by its nickname, the Katy), a passenger agent named William George Crush had an idea: use a head-on collision between two locomotives to generate income (and newspaper headlines). Officials at the MK&T agreed, and planning was underway.
The event was staged on September 15, 1896 in a valley north of Waco. Crush and his crew of MK&T laborers built a temporary depot, bandstand, viewing stands, and a temporary length of track measuring 4 miles long. Two locomotives were placed at either end; one was painted bright green, the other bright red. Both had been toured around the state in the months leading up to the crash in order to generate publicity. Crush dubbed the location of the spectacle “Crush, Texas.”
Admission was free, and round-trip tickets to “Crush” cost only $2 per person. As a result, 40,000 people showed up for the event, making “Crush, Texas” the second-largest city in the state (if only for a day). At 5:00 PM, the two trains were released under a full head of steam, speeding down the track at approximately 45 mph. The resulting collision caused both locomotives’ boilers to explode, sending shrapnel into the crowd that killed at least three people and wounded dozens of others.
The aftermath of the spectacle is almost unthinkable in modern times. Crush was immediately fired by the MK&T, but with officials seeing no widespread outrage in the media, was rehired the next day. The railroad paid settlements to the victims’ families of cash and lifetime rail passes, and the debris was cleaned up by MK&T crews and souvenir hunters. By the end of the day, “Crush, Texas” had ceased to exist. And within a few decades, the whole event would pass from the collective memory with the exception of railroad fans and Texas history buffs.
Joplin Immortalizes the “Crash” in Song
Fresh off a stint performing with his first band at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Scott Joplin was touring Texas in the late 1890s where he saw three of his compositions published in Temple. There was one waltz (Harmony Club Waltz) and two marches, the Combination March and the Great Crush Collision March. The latter of the two marches was dedicated to the “M.K.&T. Ry.,” which is of course the very railroad that had just staged the Crash at Crush. In fact, the work was copyrighted a mere 30 days after the spectacle, leading biographers to believe that Joplin had either witnessed the crash himself or heard about it from one of his acquaintances who worked as a porter on the Katy line.
While the particulars of how Joplin learned of the crash are unclear, what is known is his reaction as recorded in song. Joplin created something more than a standard march: he added instructions for creating “sound effects” for the last third of the piece that would depict the crash through music. Joplin’s notes on the piece include the following written below the staff:
The noise of the trains while running at the rate of sixty miles per hour
Whistling for the crossing
Noise of the trains
Whistle before the collision
This approach brings to mind the kind of scoring that would become standard for Hollywood pictures in the decades following the Great Crush Collision March’s publication. It was an attempt to insert narrative flair into what was otherwise a fairly straightforward composition and was a foreshadowing of Joplin’s later work with dramatic compositions that would find their culmination in Treemonisha.
“The Great Crush Collision” Revisited
My work on this blog post brought about an exciting opportunity to bring this piece back to life. Working with our sound engineer, Stephen Bolech, we arranged for graduate student in performance studies Eunhye Shin to perform the piece at First Baptist Church, where Stephen also serves as a sound engineer. The piece is included below, performed for the first time in more than a century, mere miles away from the site of the marketing spectacle it was created to commemorate.
*Note: The sound effects described above begin at the 2:04 mark with “The noise of the trains …” and end with the sustained note at 2:17 representing “the collision.”
“The Crash at Crush” (artwork) by Robert Roswell Abernathy (ca. 1937). Original on display at the Texas Collection
King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin (1994)
The Life and Works of Scott Joplin by Addison Walker Reed (1973)
Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin by Susan Curtis (1994)
The Collected Works of Scott Joplin edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1971)
Scott Joplin on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Joplin)
The Crash at Crush on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_at_Crush)
The Crash at Crush from the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/llc01)
Visit the Texas Collection online at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas for more priceless Texana.