One hundred years ago this month, engineer William Lloyd was making up for lost time early on the morning of July 9, 1918. Train No. 4 on the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis railway line had left Memphis about a half-hour late. This was scheduled to be his last day before retiring.
At 7:10 a.m. engineer David Kennedy left Nashville bound for Memphis with No. 1, also behind time.
Double tracks allowed trains headed in opposite directions to pass each other safely, but a few miles west of Nashville at Shops Junction the tracks merged into a single line. Kennedy’s train was to wait until No. 4 was on the double tracks before continuing, but another train had passed by and perhaps he thought it was No. 4. New safety procedures required an engineman and a conductor to visually examine the track record at the tower at Shops Junction but that wasn’t done—perhaps the regulations were so new that Kennedy forgot about them—and the tower gave the “tracks clear” signal.
About five miles farther on, a slight grade, lots of curves and the White Bridge above the tracks all combined to obscure vision. Both trains entered Dutchman’s Curve about 7:20 a.m. doing 50–60 miles per hour, and the 80-ton locomotives slammed into each other head-on.
A description in The Nashville Globe, an African American newspaper, described what happened: “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 northbound train through the flimsy wooden coaches loaded with human freight, telescoped the smoking car in front and piling high in the air the two cars behind it.”
A description by Dain L. Schult, Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis “The Dixie Line” (excerpted on the NC&StL Preservation Society website), says Kennedy’s engine was totally demolished as it tore through the baggage car of No. 4. “The first 3 wooden passenger cars of #1 were tossed off the track in willy-nilly fashion but surprisingly the last two wooden cars and the two Pullmans stayed on track.
“#4’s first 5 cars were strewn all over the place off the track but amazingly the last 3 cars didn’t derail and were only slightly damaged.”
The flimsy, antiquated wooden cars at the front of No. 4 contained African American workers on their way to the new DuPont munitions factory at Old Hickory east of Nashville. Caught between the locomotives and the steel Pullman cars behind, where the white passengers rode, the cars splintered and caught fire.
Injured and dying passengers lay strewn among the debris in the cornfields lining the tracks. The dismembered nature of many bodies prevented an accurate count. The generally accepted number is 101 dead, 171 injured, but the death toll may have been as high as 121. Either way, it is the highest fatality count from a railroad accident since records began in 1876. (The Malbone Street crash of an underground rapid transit train in Brooklyn just months later, November 1, 1918, killed around 100 as well).
The black workers on their way to DuPont accounted for 60–90 of the dead. The Globe wrote, “The color line was forgotten (in the aftermath) and the whites rushed to the aid of the brother in black, offering any and every assistance in their hour of trouble.” Some 40,000–50,000 people came to view the wreckage.
Many victims were Catholic. Father Dennis J. Murphy, vicar general of the diocese, was among the survivors on the inbound train and gave Last Rites to many of the victims, according to an account on the Nashville Diocese site.
In a bizarre twist, survivors included a brakeman named Corbitt who was taken to the morgue, but when someone saw him move he was rushed to a hospital where one or both legs were amputated. He was still able to leap from a 1951 train wreck, saving his life again, Schult wrote.
Another survivor, Pullman conductor Edward S. Kerrigan, lived through 12 other train wrecks with only moderate injuries, according to an April 30, 1944, article in Nashville’s The Tennessean, on the occasion of his retirement from his railroad career. Four years later he died after a 10-week illness, The Tennessean reported on August 22, 1948.
Neither of the engineers survived. Blame was placed on Kennedy for not waiting on the double tracks, but multiple factors led to the disaster. Kennedy had recognized danger at the last minute and sounded the emergency alarm to no avail.
Nashvillian Betsy Thorpe authored a book about the accident, The Day the Whistles Cried: The great cornfield meet at Dutchman’s Curve. She was among the leaders of a group that raised money to have a historical marker erected at the site in 2008.