The Interstate Commerce Commission listed the dead at 101, though some reports listed the death toll as high as 121. At least 171 people were injured. Many of the victims were African American laborers from Arkansas and Memphis who were coming to work at the gunpowder plant in Old Hickory outside of Nashville. As many as 50,000 people came to the track that day to help rescue survivors, search for loved ones, or simply witness the tragic scene.
In its official report, the Interstate Commerce Commission was harsh on the railroad. A combination of operating practices, human error and lax enforcement of operating rules led to this worst passenger train wreck in U.S. history. Had the signal tower operator properly left his signal at danger, the conductor monitored his train's progress rather than entrusting it to a subordinate, and had the crew inspected the train register at Shops Junction as required, the accident would not have happened.
Yet because the NC&StL, like all U.S. railroads at the time, was being run by the government under the United States Railroad Administration during World War I, government officials had changed the railroad's former passenger train schedules. In the past these two trains would have met safely far to the west of Nashville later in the morning. But because of the changing of the timetables, these two trains now met somewhere, depending on timing, nearer to Nashville where the possibility for mistakes was more likely. The USRA put, in essence, a gag order on the news of this wreck to try to play down public fears of having the U.S. government run the country's railroads. Another serious accident involving a circus train had happened earlier that same year under the USRA's watch. The ICC failed to note the changes in scheduling that the USRA had wrought nor did they consider the effect those changes might have had as a contributing factor to this wreck.
This wreck provided the impetus for most railroads to switch to all-steel...