Dutchman's Curve: 100 Years Since America's Worst Rail Disaster

NASHVILLE, TN — It is just before 7:20 a.m. July 9, 1918. The summer sun is rising above Nashville, rays starting to crack through the morning haze.

On the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis rail line, the No. 4 steams out of Union Station downtown, heading west to Memphis. Scheduled to depart at 7 a.m., she was six minutes late, but the engineer, William Kennedy, is giving her full boil. The No. 4 heads away from the rising sun pulsing along at 50 miles per hour.

Heading toward the rising sun and Union Station is No. 4’s sister, the No. 1 out of Memphis. Scheduled to arrive in Nashville at 7:10 a.m., she passed Bellevue 35 minutes late but like the No. 4, she’s running hard, pushing 60 miles per hour. Her engineer, William Floyd, was making his final trip before retiring from his life on the rails. Among the passengers on his train are scores of African-American workers who’ll change trains at Union Station and head to the DuPont munitions plant in Old Hickory to do their part for the war effort with the Armistice still four months away.

It would indeed be Floyd’s last trip. And Kennedy’s. And those laborers, some of whom came from as far away as Texas. And for more than 100 others. At 7:20 a.m., at a blind stretch of single track at Dutchman’s Curve, west of Nashville near White Bridge Road, the No. 1 and the No. 4 collided.

Both trains left the rails, tumbling into what was then a cornfield. Today, the land adjoins McCabe Golf Course behind the Harding Pike Publix and one of the city’s most popular greenways meanders beside the tracks.

These days, the greenway’s background noise is provided by the bustle of Harding Pike and the clunk-clunk of cars ascending White Bridge, the splashes of children and dogs playing in Richland Creek, the thump of club hitting ball (and the curses of golfers slicing same).

One hundred years ago – a quieter time generally when the area was Nashville’s bucolic and pastoral fringe – there was no background noise. Just horrible, apocalyptic foreground noise. An explosion of steel and splintering wood shattering the Tuesday morning silence. It could be heard from two miles away, they say. People on Charlotte Pike thought there was a riot at the state prison, not knowing the sound was coming from the opposite direction.

People rushed to Dutchman’s Curve, toward the sound and the fire. By the end of the day, 40,000 people – a third of the city’s entire population – were on the scene, some rubbernecking but mostly trying to help, trying to do whatever they could.

Firefighters, police and sheriff’s deputies poured on the scene, of course, and every undertaker in town, as one might expect. Doctors and nurses did what they could. But other occupations chipped in, too. Students from the city’s secretarial colleges set up typewriters on card tables to write out death certificates. Priests performed Last Rites. Nuns comforted the injured. So gruesome was the scene, police sent for butchers from Nashville’s largely German meatpackers to help with clean-up, believing they might be better equipped to stomach the bloody scene. Even the town’s illicit tradesmen stepped up, author Betsy Thorpe, who wrote “The Day The Whistles Cried” about the wreck in 2014, told the Nashville Ledger.

“Bootleggers brought booze to comfort those who needed a drink,” she said.

Officially, 101 people were dead, though other reports suggested as many as 121. More than 170 people were injured. The vast majority were African-American, in part because so many of the passengers were, but also because in those days, of course, trains, like everything else, were segregegated. Black passengers were in rickety wooden cars up front; these doubled as smoking cars. White passengers – unless they were having a cigarette – rode in modern metal construction Pullman cars farther back. The trains “telescoped.” The wooden cars were nothing more than dust and debris with one of the so-called Jim Crow cars literally shoved inside a baggage car farther ahead. Segregation, though, broke down, at least for a moment, in the wake of the crash. Local historian David Ewing told the Ledger that black patients were taken to white hospitals and white patients to black hospitals, the despicable mores of the day falling away in the wake of tragedy.

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“Somebody blundered,” the next day’s edition of The Tennessean declared, and indeed, it seemed so, disastrously so.

The standard practice was that the express train – in this case, the No. 1 coming from Memphis – had right-of-way over local traffic on single tracks. The No. 4 was to lay-up at Shops Junction – a large rail yard and roundabout near Centennial Park, now a large parking lot behind HCA’s headquarters – and wait for the No. 1 to pass.

According to the Interstate Commerce Commission report, issued within a few weeks and just six pages long, most of the blame was laid on the crew of the No. 4. The railroad dispatcher told the crew to wait at The Shops unless and until it had seen the No. 1 pass. The conductor told his fellow crewmen to watch for the train as he took up tickets. As he did so, an engine passed – a so-called “switch engine,” not hauling cars – and he apparently assumed that was the No. 1. The crew assumed the same. The tower at The Shops showed a clear signal and as the tower man logged the No. 4’s passage, he saw no entry for the No. 1. He telegraphed the dispatcher, who frantically responded “He meets No. 1 there, can you stop him?” The tower man sounded the emergency whistle.

It was in vain. No one was at the rear of the speeding No. 4. In just a few minutes, its fate and that of its sister would be sealed.

The ICC report was incredibly harsh on Kennedy, noting he failed to check the logs at The Shops to see if the No. 1 had come through. The NC&St.L took plenty of blame for its less-than-modern cars and for lax enforcement of its own operating procedures.

Kennedy’s name was a curse, carrying the blame for a century, though that “somebody” who blundered in the aforementioned Tennessean story was more than likely many somebodies. So reviled was Kennedy in the days after the wreck that his funeral at Cavalry Cemetary was sparsely attended and the priest didn’t deliver all the usual prayers, an oversight Father Ed Steiner, pastor of Nashville’s Cathedral of the Incarnation, intends to rectify Monday.

The fact is we may never know who really is to blame. The rushed and abrupt ICC report relied only on interviews with surviving members of the trains’ crews, with no passengers or other witnesses giving testimony. In contrast to the months-long investigation transportation disasters receive in 2018, the tracks were cleared in less than 12 hours and the trains were back running on schedule by the night of July 9, 1918. There’s persistent speculation the federal government rushed up and hushed up many details of the crash because blame might have fallen on the government itself.

With The Great War raging, the railroads were tightly scheduled by the feds. Most able-bodied young men were fighting in France or Belgium, so trains – running more trips than ever and under significant pressure to meet timetables – were deeply understaffed.

And the conventional wisdom is that, except for history buffs, rail fans and descendants of the victims, the crash isn’t well-remembered. In fact, it was off The Tennessean’s front page by the end of the week in 1918. With the war raging, names of fallen soldiers were back on A1 and tales of The Great Train Wreck – with so many victims African-American and from out of town besides – were back in the middle pages of the paper.

But perhaps, with the centennial here, things will change. Thorpe led the charge for an historical marker near the site – it stands near the White Bridge Road entrance to the greenway, which itself contains plenty more historical information on explanatory signage. There were several walking tours Saturday with historians tackling different aspects of the wreck and its aftermath. Local podcasts and public radio stations have had episodes about the event and Thorpe’s book is available all through town. And, sadly, with passenger rail no longer the primary means of large-scale transportation, Dutchman’s Curve is likely to stand the test of time as the deadliest train wreck in American history.

So much has changed in the last century: Nashville hasn’t had passenger rail service in 40 years, Union Station is a hotel and The Shops are a parking lot that look more like an airport tarmac. But trains still churn through Dutchman’s Curve, these days loudly blaring their whistles as they come to its blind approach. Unlikely to meet another train – one of the lasting effects of the wreck was far better tracking of which trains were where – maybe the engineers are just chasing off the ghosts.

Image via Interstate Commerce Commission/United States Department of Transportation

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