(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

A visit to the site of the nation’s deadliest train wreck

The story below is a guest blog by Sweetums. I sure appreciate his help!

By Wil Elrick

On a recent road trip to Nashville, Kelly suggested we stop and visit the site of what is today known as The Great Train Wreck of 1918. Today, the site is marked with a plaque but there is also a preserved bridge where visitors can look over the site of the train tracks. Some of the original trusses for the train bridge were also preserved near a walking path near the Belle Meade area of west Nashville.

The marker in the parking lot of the walking trail at the Dutchman’s Curve site. (Wil Elrick)

What started out as a random Tuesday in July of 1918 would turn into a day of great disaster: On July 9 at about 7:20 am, the greatest train disaster in American history would occur.  Belonging to the Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway (“NC&StL”), the No. 1 train headed from Memphis to Nashville and the No. 4 train headed from Nashville to Memphis collided head-on while on the single stretch of track known as Dutchman’s Curve amongst the cornfields outside of Nashville.

The impact of the head-on collision could be heard for miles and the resulting derailment of the cars spread for hundreds of yards through the countryside. Both trains were passenger trains, and the loss of human life was staggering. The accounts vary, but at least 101 people and as many as 121 people were killed and another 171 people injured with 100 of those severely injured. Many of those were African American workers that were headed to work in the new munitions plant located in Old Hickory.

The first thing that comes to mind when hearing about this is how two trains ended up on the same stretch of track heading right for each other. The explanation turned out to be simple and complex at the same time and involved a lot of human error. Station officials knew that the No. 1 train was running late and instructed the No. 4 train to wait on a double section of track at a location known as Shops Junction until they visually identified the No. 1 train passing. Only then was No. 4 supposed to proceed onto the single track.

Shops Junction was so named because it was the location of the locomotive repair and refueling station, as well as home to the company’s largest train roundhouse (for those who don’t know, a roundhouse was used to rotate trains’ directions and tracks.) While at this location waiting on the inbound train, the crew of train No. 4 mistook the sound of a passing switch engine to be the No. 1 train passing. The No. 4 proceeded onto the single track unknowingly setting course for disaster.

A train tower operator responsible for logging trains noticed when he went to record the No. 4 train departing Shop’s Junction that he had no record of the No. 1 train coming in and immediately telegraphed the dispatch office. He was told to stop the train. He did sound the emergency whistle, but the No.  4 train was apparently already out of range of hearing this and the two trains collided before any other actions could be taken.

Investigators with the Interstate Commerce Commission determined that the No. 1 train headed into Nashville travelling about 60 mph and the No. 4 outbound train was travelling about 50 mph when the two trains collided. Their investigative findings were very harsh on the railroad, citing that a combination human error, poor operating practices and lax enforcement of operating rules contributed to the disaster. Their report showed that had the signal operator left his signal at danger. Had the No. 4 train conductor monitored his train’s progress rather then entrusting it to subordinates or had the train crew inspected the train register while stopped at Shops Junction, the accident would not have happened.

It is also recorded that this was the final trip for the engineer of the No. 1 train prior to his retirement later that day. He was one of the many fatalities recorded that fateful day.

The site is a great way to commemorate the accident. You have to walk about 200 yards along a paved walking trail to see the old stone trestles in a stream (the track was later moved several yards and the old trestles were never torn down.) It is worth a stop for history buffs.

The stones visible in this creek are the stone trestles for the original track, which was later moved to where you see it today. (Kelly Kazek)
The curve as it looks today from White Bridge, the preserved bridge overlooking the tracks. The tracks were moved a few yards in the years after the wreck. (Wil Elrick)
The curve as it looks today. The tracks were moved a few yards in the years after the wreck. (Wil Elrick)

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