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Fairgoers' delightful destruction

By Mike Kilen
Des Moines Register
Jan. 22, 2010

Mankind's yen for low-brow entertainment often is considered modern-era folly - a love of violent films, trashy  celebrities and pants-on-the-ground reality television.

The past was wholesome and thoughtful.

Then along comes another reminder of that misperception: A Colo man wrecked trains for entertainment, and 50,000 people witnessed his first crash on Sept. 9, 1890, at the Iowa State Fair.

"Head-On Joe" Connolly would buy old locomotives, lay down track, face the engines off, fire them up and drive them into each other, creating a metal-crunching, thunderous crash producing showers of steam and flashes of fire. Spectators cheered, then ran to the wreckage to strip it apart for souvenirs.

We're amateurs today: We just turn on a rerun of "Die Hard."

"I'm no different than anyone else as far as the human race," said Jim Reisdorff, the David City, Neb., author of the new book, "The Man Who Wrecked 146 Locomotives: The Story of 'Head-On Joe' Connolly" (South Platte Press, $19.95). "Just the idea of seeing two locomotives crash together is intriguing - to see destruction."

This goofy part of Iowa State Fair history is known to visitors of the State Fair Museum's exhibit and short film showing Connolly's wreck.

But Reisdorff expands on the early 20th Century entertainment trend with text and photographs, showing that Connolly was among the nation's finest wreckers.

Reisdorff's interests mirror Connolly, who grew up with 10 siblings near Colo and watched the Cedar Rapids and Missouri Railroads pass through. Reisdorff's earliest memories as a young boy were picking up his sisters at the Omaha station as they were coming home from college.

Reisdorff eventually started a publishing business that produces books on railroad history, including Connolly's rather odd story.

Connolly was in the theatrical business for 40 years in Des Moines but in a stoic Iowa manner quietly amassed a 36-year career of 73 train wrecks, including three at the state fair in 1896, 1922 and 1932.

He was one of the first to wreck trains after seeing an exhibition in Columbus, Ohio, earlier in 1896. Reisdorff said he was businesslike in his staging but made it clear: "There was the right way, the wrong way and his way."

Although a staged crash in Texas a week after the Iowa's 1896 exhibition caused deaths and injuries, Connolly claimed to never cause as much as a scratch to spectators from trains colliding at up to 30 miles per hour.

"But during his last collision at the state fair, there were at least two spectators who received slight injuries from flying debris," Reisdorff said. "One of them was a lady at the fair on her honeymoon."

Connolly traveled the country to stage wrecks and some newspaper reporters thought it fairly dull - a minute of anticipation followed by a few seconds of buckling trains.

Connolly upped the spectacle. He added dynamite on the tracks to create noise and wooden rail cars soaked in gas to start on fire. The anticipation of danger, symbolized in those days by horrifyingly real train wrecks that caused death, was half the entertainment. Engineers operating the trains jumped from the locomotives before the crash.

Just what possessed folks to see such entertainment?

For the first time, Americans in the Industrial Revolution had time for leisure and thrill-seeking, Emily Godbey of Iowa State University told Reisdorff. It also was fueled by Luddism, a yearning to see the destruction of modern mechanisms.

The events grew in popularity through the first decade of the 20th century with 162,000 attending in New York City.

The 1932 state fair crash netted between $12,000 and $15,000 and was credited with both saving the fair from loss during the  Depression and padding the pockets of Connolly, who made big money for the day - $4,000.

Film newsreel teams captured the event and it was shown worldwide.

The era of staged train wrecks ended two years after Connolly's last state fair event. He died in 1948 at age 89.

"The art of staged train wrecks has today morphed into speed-car races and monster trucks and that kind of thrill seeking," Reisdorff said.

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