A collision at the 1913 California State Fair in Sacramento. (McCurry Foto/California State Library)

The lost pastime of head-on train collisions

They used to smash trains into each other for amusement at California fairs. From the 1890s through the 1930s, head-on collisions of steam locomotives were a favorite pastime at festivals across America.

Showmen would lay a stretch of tracks in a field and place two old trains at either end, facing each other. Engineers would then go full throttle, leaping from the machines just before they collided in a mass of bent steel, splintered wood, and smoke.

An event at a Los Angeles racetrack in 1906 was promoted as if it was a great boxing match. “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 L.A. Times wrote.

Purposely colliding trains fell out of popularity around the Great Depression in part because it was seen as wasteful. Some years later, the demolition derby rose, reviving the tradition of destruction as entertainment — but it was never quite the same.

Watch two locomotives collide at the 1913 California State Fair:  Internet Archive (starts near 5-minute mark)

Below, a few more photos from the California archives.

Men posed with mangled trains in Sacramento, circa 1914-1916.
McCurry Foto/California State Library
Colliding at the 1913 California State Fair.
McCurry Foto/California State Library

A crash at the California State Fair, circa 1913-1916.
McCurry Foto/California State Library
Men posed with a wreck in Sacramento, circa 1915.
McCurry Foto/California State Library

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