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It was a train wreck of an event

In 1906, on a mile-long stretch of track where the L.A. Coliseum now stands, promoters hurtled two giant locomotives toward each other. As the engineers leaped to safety, the climactic moment came.

May 29, 2011|By Steve Harvey
  • In a staged train wreck with political trappings, the Roosevelt and the Hoover go head-to-head at the 1932 Iowa State Fair.
In a staged train wreck with political trappings, the Roosevelt and the… (Iowa State Fair Museum )

Even for Los Angeles, the accident scene drew an unusually large number of gawkers — and the accident hadn't even happened yet.

The 6,000 or so ticket-buyers who gathered that September day in 1906 had come to see a staged head-on collision between two locomotives on a mile-long stretch of track laid down in Agricultural Park near downtown.

The Times gave the meeting of Engine Nos. 13 and 23, late of the Salt Lake Railroad, the tongue-in-cheek buildup of a great boxing match or horse race.

"Trained to the minute, the iron gladiators will each be fed a light breakfast of 21 tons of soft coal and 3,500 gallons of water this morning," the newspaper reported.

The only passengers on the two leviathans would be the engineers who promised that, before they leaped free, they would have the locomotives rumbling along at 40 mph at least.

"The affair promises to be the most spectacular event ever shown in the West," The Times said.

The curious sport of train-crashing, though new to Los Angeles, had been around for several years, says Jim Reisdorff, author of the book "The Man Who Wrecked 146 Locomotives: The Story of 'Head-On' Joe Connolly."

From 1896 to 1932, Connolly staged 73 train wrecks at state fairs and other galas, mostly in the Midwest.

"I guess the train wrecks appealed to the more primitive side of man — the thrill of seeing something destroyed," Reisdorff said. "Nowadays people go to demolition derbies."

He also noted that "the railroads played a much bigger part in everyday life back then. Seeing something so familiar getting mangled was fascinating."

Connolly inspired imitators around the nation, including the two promoters of the Los Angeles event: baseball owner James Morley and former Pomona football coach Walter Hempel.

The prospect of the smash-up in Los Angeles produced a festive atmosphere.

"The big park was aglow with color," The Times said. "Gaily dressed ladies, accompanied by their escorts, thronged the grandstand and throughout the big field hundreds of vehicles, from the violent-hued automobile down to the tally-ho of subdued elegance, were scattered."

The engines, meanwhile, were warming up by "parading up and down the mile of track and meeting in the center. They would approach each other at a fair speed and the hearts of the crowd would rise in their throats, expecting the crash. Then slowing down at the last moment they would stop."

The emcee was Frank "Megaphone" Cook, the city's most famous public announcer, "without whose presence no public amusement can be a success," The Times said.

Megaphone mounted a white charger and paraded up and down in front of the restless, fenced-off crowd.

"A note of warning," he intoned in his dramatic speaking style. "After the lo-co-mo-tive collision, the crowd will please keep within bounds for 10 minutes as there is the dire possibility of a second mishap."

The proceedings were held up at one point when the two engineers approached the promoters and demanded an extra $350, evidently figuring they had caught the promoters "at a time when they could not secure other engineers," The Times said.

No such luck. Two reserve crewmen were swiftly summoned and the holdouts were told to hit the road.

Finally, co-promoter Hempel ran out near the tracks, a white flag in one hand, a revolver in the other.

He fired the gun six times to get everyone's attention and "a deathlike stillness settled over the thousands of spectators. A dog scurrying across the field seemed to feel the tension in the air and cowered to the ground," The Times said.

Then Hempel gave the signal for the showdown, dropping the white flag as he scurried "pell-mell and hatless for the fringe of the crowd where safety lay," about 700 feet from the tracks.

The locomotives, "with their steam pipes yelling shrilly … rushed angrily toward each other, disputing the right of way," as the engineers leaped to safety.

The climactic moment came.

And passed.

"There was no deafening crash," The Times said. "There was a dull, muffled 'chunk'…. They reared slightly, settled down and stopped. Dense white clouds of steam enveloped them."

The engines were "a mass of debris," but neither derailed.

A boy climbed up on the engine of one of the "impotent monsters," as The Times called them, and drew laughs by ringing a warning bell.

"When the momentary hope that the boilers might explode and do something worthwhile passed, one said to himself, 'Is that all?'" The Times concluded.

Such was the end of train-wrecking in Los Angeles.

Not even the talents of Megaphone Cook could prevent the show from being labeled a flop.

Years later, Agricultural Park became the home of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But some things never change. Now football players crash into one another there.

steveharvey9@gmail.com

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