Remembering the West Explosion, Five Years Later (Classic Post)

On April 17, 2013, the course of history for the town of West, TX was changed forever. The following day, we wrote a brief blog post on the nature of recovery, perseverance and the fleeting nature of memory, data and life in general. Today, on the fifth anniversary of that devastating day, we are reposting that article in its entirety.


The article below originally ran on April 18, 2013, one day after a massive explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas destroyed the facility and caused 15 fatalities (mostly first responders) and millions of dollars in property damage.

The aftermath of an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, April 17, 2013. (Photo via BusinessInsider.com)

At the time of this writing, the campus of Baylor University is quiet, subdued under a twin burden thanks to the dismal weather (due to a cold front/rainstorm combo) and an event that occurred just twenty short miles up the road in West. As reports roll in documenting the destruction – physical, emotional, communal – wrought by an explosion at a fertilizer plant on the north side of town, the Baylor community is responding with a prayer vigil, offers of donations of materials and financial gifts, and the use of our collective expertise in helping the citizens of West find new hope in the rubble of last night’s wreckage.

As we try to come to grips with the scope of devastation, it comes at a time when the national mood is already unsettled due to the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Add into the mix the fact that this, the third week in April, has seen traumatic national events in the past two decades (the Columbine High School massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing and the Branch Davidian standoff, chiefly) and you have a general sense of discomfort, a time of unwanted reflection on the darker side of human nature.

All of this may seen like a strange topic for a blog post focused on digital collections, but it reinforces an absolutely inarguable point: life is uncertain. We can build legal structures, steel-studded concrete walls, social norms and inner rationalizations to protect us from the things beyond our control, but they can only take us so far. For all of us will face an event in our lives that we cannot control, that is beyond our power to influence. And in the midst of that uncertainty, it helps to have reminders that our daily work to preserve the documented history of our campus, our community, our world is one way we can provide the tumultuous present with a concrete anchor to the past.

“The Preservers of History”

Chiseled into the stonework of the façade of Pat Neff Hall, Baylor’s main administration building, is a quote from former Baylor president (and two-term Texas governor) Pat Morris Neff. It reads, “The preservers of history are as heroic as its makers,” and I believe this sums up our role in the Digital Projects Group in a simple, profound way that paragraphs of explanatory text cannot. We are the preservers of history, yes, by the nature of our work to digitize physical history and preserve its digital surrogate for access by the future. But more important than simply scanning and archiving data, we are preserving the stories contained within those documents and we are ensuring that those stories will be accessible and available to people many years from now. On days like today, it seems particularly important to preserve the stories happening all around us, even if they aren’t as newsworthy as an explosion, a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack.

This is not a responsibility we take lightly, of course. For every artifact, archival resource, photograph, map or other item that comes through our doors, we know we are handling the “real stuff” of history and it is our job to take that one unique thing and give it a new life, a greater usefulness in the realm of academic scholarship and worldwide access. In a sense, we serve not so much as the preservers of history but as its spokesmen, the professional communicators tasked with taking something out of its phase box, Mylar sleeve or acid-free folder and putting it on an international stage via the Internet so its unique story can reach people on our campus, on our continent, on the other side of the world.

The Way of All Flesh (and Data)

We are given only a short time on this Earth to do the work we were created to do. There will come a time when the words of this blog will be seen as a record of what one group of people thought was important in the early decades of the 21st century. They will read of a fertilizer plant explosion in a small, Czech community in central Texas and want to know more about how it spurred a library staff member at Baylor University to write about its relation to digital preservation.

To those future researchers –and to my 2013 contemporaries reading this post today – I can only say that as this week’s unexpected events have unfolded on the East coast and a half-hour drive from my front door, it drives home to me the frailty of life, the knowledge that the things we create today are not promised to exist tomorrow, and that the challenge for our field is to try to find some permanence in the world, to promise our grandchildren’s grandchildren that they will have access to the world we are living in today. And, more importantly than all of this, that they will have access to our stories.

If you would like to assist the people of West in their recovery and rebuilding efforts, please visit Baylor’s “Response for the City of West” web age or contact the Central Texas Red Cross. Photo from REUTERS photographer Mike Stone via Business Insider (www.businessinsider.com)

Still “Crush”-ing It 120 Years Later: Revisiting a Classic Post on a Big Anniversary

Today is the 120th anniversary of the “Crash at Crush,” a marketing stunt carried out by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT or “Katy”) Railroad in a field just outside of Waco. Our friends at Waco History have a great post about the event on their website, and it used materials from our blog post below to help give a more in-depth look to a truly unique instance in Texas history.

Screenshot of Crash at Crush story from Waco History (http://wacohistory.org/items/show/70)

Screenshot of Crash at Crush story from Waco History (http://wacohistory.org/items/show/70)

In honor of the big day, we’re re-posting our look at the event, as well as the way Scott Joplin memorialized it in song. Enjoy!

(Original post from April 19, 2012 follows below.)


Scott Joplin’s “Great Crush Collision March” and
the Memorialization of a Marketing Spectacle

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.

Detail from “The Crash at Crush” by artist Robert Roswell Abernathy (1911-1981).

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.

Click the image above to access a PDF of the complete score.

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
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.”

Works Consulted

“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.