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The Great Buckeye Collision
Written April 20, 2021


When I was five years old, my father was selling Chevrolets in Cambridge, Ohio.  He wanted to go into business for himself, but because his boss in Cambridge wouldn't release him, Chevrolet wouldn't give him a dealership.  So he quit and took a job in Newark.  For six months in the middle of 1952, our family lived at that halfway location until a dealership became available in Richwood. 


On summer weekends we'd drive ten miles south from Newark to visit an amusement park (circled in red above).  This former swamp had become an artificial lake in 1830 when a dike was completed on the South Fork of the Licking River to fill the “Licking Summit Reservoir.”  That water was used to replenish the Ohio and Erie Canal (shown in blue above), which transported freight and passengers between the Ohio and Cuyahoga Rivers.  But the canal system declined.  In 1894 the reservoir was renamed “Buckeye Lake” and the area became a pleasure resort.  Designated Ohio's first State Park in 1949, the lake nowadays is mostly lined with vacation homes.

Recently I learned that there was a great crash of two railroad locomotives at Buckeye Park on May 30, 1896.

However, further investigation clarifies that the location wasn't the Buckeye Lake of my childhood.  There was once a different Buckeye Park, some 15 miles to the southwest.  Its name was later changed to Maplewood Park so that people like me wouldn't be confused.

Back in 1890, the Columbus & Hocking Valley Rail Road wanted to increase weekend usage of their line (in black below), so they established “a spacious park for use of the laboring and other classes of Columbus who desired to lay aside the work and worry of the week and spend Sunday at a moral resort.  After an inspection of the valley, a picturesque spot seven miles north of Lancaster was selected and beautified by numerous buildings and an artificial lake.”  That's according to the Lancaster Gazette of July 1, 1891.  On that Sunday, “The swings and other arrangements for proper amusement were in active use and the boats were kept plunging through the lake during the entire day.”

The site was just southwest of the intersection of Coonpath Road and the Columbus Pike, present-day Ohio Route 37.  It claimed to be the only resort in central Ohio with facilities for bathing in a lake of pure spring water with a toboggan slide.  To draw paying passengers all the way out there, what other attractions might be added?

Spectacular railroad accidents had been in the news for decades when an Illinois railroad-equipment salesman named A.L. Streeter proposed staging an intentional collision.  While spectators watched, two locomotives on the same track would smash into each other head-on!  The railways around Chicago weren't interested, but near Canton, Ohio, the financially strapped Cleveland, Canton & Southern Rail Road was willing to chance it.  Mechanics refurbished two rusting locomotives, and Streeter announced a price of 75 cents (about $25 today) to witness the collision at 3 p.m. Saturday, July 20, 1895.

A high fence was built along the rural tracks so that paying customers could watch the mayhem from a safe distance.  Unfortunately, most of the crowd bypassed the fence and stood dangerously close to the projected point of impact.  Also, because only about 200 people paid at the gate, Streeter couldn't afford the $2,400 he had promised the Cleveland, Canton & Southern.  The exhibition was canceled, and angry spectators climbed down from the trees.

Streeter tried again with the Columbus & Hocking Valley.  The Lancaster Daily Eagle announced in its May 4, 1896, edition:  “Realizing that a very small percentage of the people at large have ever witnessed a railway collision and believing that such an exhibition would prove most interesting and attractive to the masses, the management have completed arrangements with Mr. A. L. Streeter for such a demonstration as the [season-]opening attraction of their famous pleasure resort, Buckeye Park.”

A section of rail was laid in front of the park, elevated so thousands of people could watch the run from start to smashup.  This time admission would be free; money was to be made by charging for train rides to and from the park.  Twelve special trains from Columbus, one every half hour, were laid on in addition to the regular ones.  Other spectators would use other forms of transportation.

Advertisements appeared in the Columbus newspapers, and on May 22, 1896, the Columbus & Hocking Valley Rail Road placed an ad in the Daily Eagle announcing the “Opportunity of a lifetime to witness a RAILWAY COLLISION between two 40-ton locomotives, each hauling a train of four cars, stationed one mile and a half apart and coming together on a track laid for the purpose in front of Buckeye Park, Saturday, May 30, ’96, 3 p.m.  The most expensive, gigantic and realistic entertainment ever presented for the American people.  Ample train service; low excursion fares; positively no postponement, rain or shine.”

On the big day, “vehicles of every description were drawn up on the Columbus Pike half a mile distant from the resort.  Hundreds of cyclers were there, some of them coming from a great distance.”  A farmer did charge admission to his field for parking carriages, and Fred Pickering sold coffee and thousands of sandwiches in about two hours.

According to an account by Clarence Metters in National Magazine:  “Twenty-five thousand pairs of eyes were riveted upon one engine or the other as they rushed together, and so critical was the moment that scarcely a word was spoken.”  The name of W.H. Fisher, the railroad's general passenger agent, was painted on one engine's tender, while the other bore the name of A.L. Streeter.  Lifelike dummies had been placed in the locomotives.  “They were dressed in the regulation engineman's garb, and more than one woman covered her eyes, dreading to see the monsters come together, feeling that the trainmen had failed to get off in time and that they were being carried to a certain and swift destruction.  On and on sped the two iron monsters at the rate of over 40 miles an hour.”

“Quicker than thought,” according to the Daily Eagle, “there was a crash, a fearful moan, the hissing and screeching of escaping steam, the rattle and bang of falling iron and steel, flying pieces of debris, a last terrible sigh of the dying iron steeds, a settling of the mass of ruins and all was over.”

Souvenir seekers clambered over the still-steaming wreckage.  Later, they would write enthusiastic descriptions of the experience to their friends across the country.  As the first successful staged collision, Buckeye Park's event caught the attention of railroad fans across the nation. 

Streeter went on to organize similar exhibitions, as did other promoters.  Two months later, William George Crush crashed a pair of trains in Texas. 

“The rumble of the two trains, faint and far off at first, but growing nearer and more distinct with each fleeting second, was like the gathering force of a cyclone,” wrote the Dallas Morning News. 

Upon impact, the engine boilers exploded and the crowd of 40,000 people was showered with jagged projectiles, killing two people and injuring dozens.

Nevertheless, the craze of deliberate demolitions continued for another two decades.  I never had the opportunity to witness one, at Buckeye (Lake) Park or elsewhere.



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