Sunday, Sept. 5, 1920: Two locomotives collide at fair

Posted on August 17th, 2007 – 2:38 AM
By Ben Welter

The 1920 edition of the Great Minnesota Get-Together was a fair to remember. It featured 10 tons of butter, 80 acres of farm machinery, “9-foot-5″ Jan Van Albert, speeches by presidential candidates Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox, and Ruth Law’s Flying Circus. The main attraction on opening day was a “Gigantic Locomotive Collision” at the grandstand, with two 160,000-pound engines slamming into each other at 60 mph. The collision was the top story on A1 the next morning in the Sunday Tribune. The fair staged three more locomotive collisions, in 1921, 1933 and 1934.

  A Minnesota Historical Society photo shows the 1933 collision —
  or is it 1934? The caption on the back lists both years.
 

55,117 Defy Rain for Fair’s Opening

Locomotives Crash
on Schedule Time

Crowd Waits Three Hours for Spectacle That
Divides Honors With Wilson’s Flying Stunts
– Opening Day Is Record

A great big good-natured crowd of 55,117 people, intent upon watching two engines meet at top speed for the first time in their experience, disregarded a steady drizzle descending unceasingly from an overcast sky yesterday, and gave emphatic impetus to hopes of State Fair officials to make this year’s attendance break the world record set by the Minnesota State Fair last year.

The first day crowd in 1919 was only 30,631, little more than half yesterday’s attendance, despite the unkind treatment of the weather man.

Crowd Out For Good Time.

The crowd was remarkably good-natured in the face of adversity. They were out for a good time, and were determined to have it, even if their best clothes did get soaked. For three hours in the afternoon, a solid mass of humanity sat in the sold-out grandstand, unprotected from the merciless drizzle.

Thrills a-plenty rewarded the afternoon crowd for its three hours’ wait in the dripping granstands, when Ruth Law’s flying circus, featuring Al Wilson, and the engine collision, occurred exactly on schedule time late in the afternoon.

Collision Missed by None.

Visitors who had preferred inspection of the exhibits in Fair buildings to the full program of circus features and races offered on the grandstand track could not resist the chance to see the rail collision. Without question this unique feature was the crowd-pulling event of the day.

Steaming slowly up and down the brief stretch of track, the engines, piloted by W.D. Carrington and Harry Tatum of Inver Grove, made several preliminary test trips.

Then, with a shill blast of their whistles, the engines concentrated the crowd’s attention on the last trip they were to make. Carrington opened wide the throttle of engine “573,” she started forward, almost immediately gaining her maximum speed. He jumped quickly, but not quite quickly enough. Landing heavily in the adjacent mudbank, he turned three complete somersaults, and struck his ankle against a boulder, spraining it.

Tatum Swings to Safety.

Meanwhile, Tatum had started No. 478 more slowly. But as he saw the other engine tearing down the track, he threw the throttle wide, and swung to safety. The two engines, rushing inevitably toward each other, met almost squarely in the center of the track. Ther was a terrific explosion and “478” crashed clean through the front of “573,” and halted dead.

Then the fun began. Determined to get a close view, grandstand, bleacher and Machinery Hill crowds decided at one and the same moment ot reach the scene of the collision. Wire fences, wooden barriers, policeman with wildly waving arms were no barriers whatever. Within two minutes the racetrack, the central oval, and the fields beyond the enginetrack, were black with people. Up and [d]own the track and over the adjoining fields the people ranged, hunting bits of wreckage for souvenirs. Soon there was little left that was not too heavy to carry away.

Al Wilson’s Feats Win Thrills.

The collision, although it was listed as the central attraction of the day, was not so successful in rousing thrills as the unparalleled feat of “Al” Wilson, the intrepid acrobat, with Ruth Law’s flying circus. This professional daredevil, half a mile in the air, stood on the top of a plane made slippery by the rain, poised part of the time on one leg, and when the second plane approached over his head, he seized it’s wing by one hand, and swung gracefully over.

The rain-soaked plane, however, very nearly ended Wilson’s two-year career. While the planes were jockeying for position the first time they flew over the stands, Wilson temporarily lost his balance on top of the slippery plane and fell flat.

Minneapolis Pilot Participates.

Added daring was given to Wilson’s act yesterday through the fact that the lower plane, from which he swung, was driven by Ray Miller, a Minneapolis pilot who had never practiced the feat. Ray Goldsworthy, who ordinarily pilots the lower plane, was caught in a heavy rainstorm near Mason City, Iowa, and got here too late for the show.

Style Show Deferred.

Parts of the program deferred until Monday through first-day accidents invariably disappointed large crowds gathered.

Cream of the crop: An elaborate State Fair butter sculpture from about 1920. (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)

Governor Cox has signified his intention of visiting the Fine Arts galleries tomorrow when he speaks before the grandstand.

Two Lost Boys Sought.

Police and hospital officials had little to do the first day of the Fair. Two lost boys, Robert Owens, Cathay, N.D., 14 years old, and George Esert, Gladstone, Minn., 12 years old, were reported to the police, and had not been found late last night. Not even a severe fainting spell was reported to the emergency hospital.

At the last minute, the night show was called off on account of rain. The announcement was deferred, because the Fair management hoped that it would be possible to stage the fireworks spectacle for the benefit of those out-of-town people who could not stay over until Monday evening.

Today, “Music Day,” will be a quiet Sunday of the Fair. No entertainment program of any kind has been arranged, and the Midway shows will not be open. There will be band concerts a-plenty, and the exhibition buildings will all be thrown open. The program arranged will be entirely educational.

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