Curious Nashville: Remembering America’s Deadliest Train Crash

Jul 10, 2017

Even many Nashville natives don't know about the head-on train crash at Dutchman's Curve on July 9, 1918. It killed 101 people — mostly African Americans — and by most counts remains the deadliest train accident in American history.

We started looking into it after listener named Russell asked us this question as part of our Curious Nashville series:

I'd like to know more about the wreck at Dutchman's Curve. How did it happen and what changes resulted from it?

There's a song by Bobby Braddock that tells the story pretty close to how it happened, though with a few facts twisted. (Here's a recording by David Allan Coe from 1980.) 

One train that left around midnight was coming into town from Memphis, carrying mostly African-Americans headed to work at DuPont's new gun powder plant in Old Hickory. The train leaving Nashville was headed west to Memphis. And both were late.

The front page of the Nashville, Tennessean on July 10, 1918. The death totals were revised in the following days. There were more injuries than the first count.
Credit newspapers.com

The Nashville train should have waited for the Memphis train to reach the double tracks that start around Centennial Park. But the engineer leaving Nashville, also late, barreled ahead.

More: Read the Interstate Commerce Commission's incident report.

The locomotives collided at a big bend in the tracks near Belle Meade, behind what is now a Publix. Because of the curve, they didn't see each other until it was too late.

"People from miles away heard the crash and just came running," Nashville historian David Ewing says.

As many as 40,000 people came to see the carnage, he says. The site was so gruesome that steel-stomached butchers were called in to help with the bloody cleanup.

"The cornfield on both sides of the track was trampled by many feet, and littered with fragments, of iron and wood hurled from the demolished cars. The dead lay here and there, grotesquely sprawling where they fell. The dying moaned appeals for aid or, speechless, rolled their heads from side to side and writhed in agony. Everywhere there was blood and suffering and chaos." — Nashville Tennessean, June 10, 1918

"This was a very sad story, just because of the loss of human life," Ewing says. "But out of the 101 people that died, over 90 of the people were African-American."

There's a reason so many African-Americans died: They were traveling in unsafe Civil War-era cars made of wood, unlike white passengers, who rode in steel Pullman cars. The wooden cars, on the other hand, splintered and caught fire.

The Metro Historical Commission put up this marker in 2008.
Credit Amy Eskind

"The African-Americans that were on this train did not have a chance to survive, given where they were," Ewing says.

Racial discrimination may help explain why Dutchman's Curve didn't really become well known Nashville lore. But it was also lost in the bigger news of the day. About a hundred Americans were dying in World War I every day at this point. The names of casualties replaced the wreck on the front page of the paper by the end of the week.

Ewing helped place a marker near the crash site for the 90th anniversary, and he's beginning to plan a centennial commemoration to make sure people know the country's deadliest train wreck happened in their backyard.