The photo with this column, showing a pair of railroad engines that have collided, is sometimes labeled "The Hazards of Rail Traffic."

But all is not as it seems.

The first clue is the large crowd of well-dressed men gathered around the two engines.

What we are looking at here actually is an offbeat form of late-19th-century entertainment.

To understand this scene, we have to recall the extraordinary impact of railroads and the trains that ran on them to the people of Ohio in the 1800s.

Experiments with "locomotives," or machines that ran on their own without the aid of man or beast pushing or pulling them, began in earnest in the late 1820s in the United States.

An early locomotive was little more than a steam engine placed sideways and mounted on a four-wheel frame with mechanical parts to transfer power from the steam engine to the wheels.

The original engines ran on a set of wooden rails and only for a short distance.

But they demonstrated that something was coming that would take the place of wagons pulled by oxen or canal boats pulled by mules.

Many of the early locomotives were unstable and had a nasty tendency to either partially or completely blow up.

The flying hot metal was not appreciated by either passengers or crew.

Additional problems came from the tracks. It was learned quickly that wooden tracks did not last long.

The next innovation was wooden tracks with a strip of cast iron mounted on top. These did not fare much better – neither did their successor, solid cast-iron tracks.

The answer finally was found with the Bessemer process to create steel rails with great strength and reliability.

But other problems arose.

As it became clear by the 1840s that rail traffic was feasible, a number of companies with state, local and even individual money all began to build railroads. Some of these railroads only went short distances. Others never went anywhere at all.

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, a lot of the competition among diverse lines, big and small, had begun to sort itself out, and a number of statewide, regional and national railroad lines began to dominate the railroad business of the country.

Columbus saw its first trains come to town with the arrival of the Columbus and Xenia Railroad.

One might wonder why Columbus wanted a link to the seat of Greene County in southwest Ohio. It was because in Xenia, passengers could transfer to the Little Miami Railroad and take a train to Cincinnati – then one of the largest cities in the U.S.

It is difficult for many people today to recognize the extraordinary impact that railroads had on the country in those days. This was a society largely still rural and governed by the relationship of people to horses, oxen and other working animals. Then came the railroad with large, smoking, noisy machines that could travel at the simply unbelievable speed of 30 mph.

It should not be surprising that railroad travel, railroad promotion and railroad investment captured the imagination of 19th-century America. Nor should it be shocking that in an age before radio, movies or even automobiles, at least some men would find amusement in railroad demolition.

Our photo was taken in summer 1895. We can tell it is summer because many of the men are wearing straw hats in a time when most men wore hats most of the time.

They also are reasonably well-dressed, so this is not an unplanned meeting where two trains have crashed.

In fact, the crash was a planned event.

On a summer weekend, a large number of men bought tickets on a train with amply stocked cars to take them to Buckeye Lake. There, they gathered to watch two locomotives scheduled for the junkyard to be fired up one last time and then crashed into each other.

After the collision, the crowd gathered at the crash site to admire the aftermath. The assembly then boarded a train and returned to Columbus and points nearby.

It was an interesting, if not particularly productive, way to spend a weekend day in central Ohio.

To my knowledge, demolition derbies notwithstanding, we have not made a public spectacle of colliding locomotives in the recent past.

That is at least a bit reassuring.

Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.