The Great Train Wreck of 1918

Crowds gather to witness the carnage of the Great Train Wreck of 1918 outside Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: The Tennessean, Wikimedia)
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Brooks Hays

Early on a humid summer morning in Tennessee in 1918 — July 9, to be exact — a passenger train, the No. 4, headed out from Union Station in Nashville, destined for Memphis. Believing that the tracks were all clear, the No. 4 picked up speed as it transitioned from the double to the single tracks and prepared to round the first bend. Usually at around this time, the No. 4’s conductor, David Kennedy, would see the No. 1 train arriving from Memphis pulling in. Today, Kennedy thought he saw the No. 1 pass him by, but he had in fact seen a stray switch engine hauling empty cars.  The No. 1 train from Nashville was running behind schedule. As the No. 4 pulled out, around the bend known as Dutchman’s Curve, the No. 1 train was barreling ahead at about 50 mph. The No. 4 was travelling at about the same speed — on the same track. 

Neither train had time to break, and the two locomotives converged head on. The sound of the exploding engines could be heard for miles. Locals who came to find out about the loud noise found a smoldering pile of twisted steel, and dead and bloodied passengers strewn about the nearby corn fields, while others were trapped beneath the mangled rail cars. Hundreds of spectators showed up throughout the day to watch the dead and injured carted away. In all, 101 people were killed; 171 more were injured. It remains the worst train wreck in American history.

Known as the Great Train Wreck of 1918 or the Great Nashville Train Wreck, and referred to locally as the Dutchman’s Curve Train Wreck, the accident was off the front pages of the national newspapers after only three days. Some historians say the rush of World War I headlines flooding in from front lines of Europe quickly pushed the wreck out of the news. Others say racism was at least partially to blame for the story’s rapid disappearance, since the majority of the casualties on the No. 1 train were African Americans -- black men and women from Arkansas and Memphis on their way to work at the government-run gunpowder factory in Old Hickory outside of Nashville. But also lost in the wreckage were the lives of young military recruits who had been riding the eastbound train. The casualties also included many Nashville businessmen, train employees, and local women and children who were headed out of town on the westbound No. 4.

The Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the federal agency then in charge of regulating America’s railroads, investigated the horrendous accident. It concluded that the blame lay with the conductor of the local train, No. 4, who should have been waiting for the No. 1 to pass before setting out. But some historians have since pointed to a series of small mistakes and miscommunications between the conductor and those manning the signal towers –- the railroad equivalent of an air traffic control tower.

Others say that part of the confusion can be blamed on the federal government. Until 1917, all railroad schedules and safety monitoring had been the responsibility of the privately-owned railroads. But at the beginning of World War I, the federal government nationalized the railroad industry, assuming control of most railroad operations, bolstering infrastructure improvements, augmenting track schedules and setting price controls — all in the name of moving goods and services for the war effort more efficiently. Quick to blame the accident on a single human error, the ICC may have been aiming to quell doubts about the United States Railroad Administration’s (USRA) ability to run the railroads.

At the end of the war, the USRA was disbanded, and operation of the railroads was returned to their corporate owners. But the federal ICC continued to exert immense authority over the railroad industry for several more decades, setting maximum and minimum freight rates, evaluating consolidations and mergers, controlling infrastructure investments, issuing loans, and intervening in labor disputes. Beginning in the 1970s, and continuing in the 1980s, the authority of the ICC was slowly diminished by deregulation legislation such as the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act. The agency was finally closed in 1995, replaced by the Surface Transportation Board under the umbrella of the Department of Transportation.

The Great Train Wreck had little effect on the involvement of the federal government into the operations of rail industry, but it did move more and more railroad companies to abandon wooden rail cars. W.P. Borland, chief of the Interstate Commerce Commission’s Bureau of Safety, concluded in his report of the accident: “Had steel cars been used in these trains, the toll of human lives taken in this accident would have undoubtedly been much less.”

Though the Dutchman’s Curve Train Wreck has been relegated to the dusty back pages of history, it is still remembered each year by Tennessee history buffs and descendants of the accident’s victims, many of whom gather on the anniversary of the tragedy at nearby Mount Olivet Cemetery. Only a few years ago, local historical ] societies were finally able raise enough money to install a permanent plaque at the site of accident, memorializing the “Over 100 [who] died, including many African Americans journeying to work at the munitions plant.”