Great Train Wreck of 1918

Because somebody blundered, at least 121 persons were killed and fifty-seven injured shortly after 7 o'clock on Tuesday morning, when Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway passenger trains No. 1 from Memphis and No. 1 from Nashville [sic: No. 4 came from Nashville] crashed head-on together just around the sharp, steep-graded curve at Dutchman's Bend, about five miles from the city near the Harding road.

Both engines reared and fell on either side of the track, unrecognizable masses of twisted iron and steel, while the fearful impact of the blow drove the express car of the north-bound train through the flimsy wooden coaches loaded with human freight, telescoped the smoking car in front and piling high in air the two cars behind it, both packed to the aisles with negroes en route to the powder plant and some 150 other regular passengers.

Just where lies the blame, it is impossible now to say. Officials of the road are silent. But one of three things is reasonably sure -- that the engineer of No. 4 was given wrong instructions, ran by his signal, or overlooked, the schedule on which he was supposed to run. That he knew the Memphis train to be a little late, leads to the conjecture that he was attempting to reach the switch at Harding station, a short distance beyond the scene of the wreck, before the inbound train arrived at that point.

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 passenger cars versus wood and steel.

The railroad track hides in the armpit of Nashville, beneath the bustling traffic and behind the office towers and strip malls.
The used-but-forgotten tracks parallel West End behind Centennial Park, cross Murphy Road and take a sudden turn south by McCabe Park.
That curve, Dutchman's Curve, still evokes memories of a horrible day in Nashville history.
A bit farther south behind Belle Meade Plaza at White Bridge Road and Harding is an old, crumbling bridge where Frank Fletcher of Nashville stood that day 80 years ago, looking down on the bloody tracks.