A hundred years ago this month the deadliest train wreck in U.S. history occurred in Nashville, Tennessee, when two passenger trains operated by the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway collided head-on at Dutchman’s Curve, killing more than a hundred people and injuring at least 171 others.
In the book “The Day the Whistles Cried: The Great Cornfield Meet at Dutchman’s Curve,” South Nashville-based author Betsy A. Thorpe recounts the circumstances surrounding the accident, which took place on the morning of July 9, 1918, when a westbound train that had departed from Nashville’s Union Station smashed into an eastbound overnight-express train arriving from Memphis.
Today, relatively few Nashville residents are aware that the deadliest train wreck in American history occurred in their city, surpassing another accident, the Circus Train Wreck, that occurred just weeks earlier, on June 22, 1918, near Hammond, Indiana.
Of course, the Dutchman’s Curve accident site—behind Saint Thomas West Hospital, very near Richland Creek and the Richland Creek Greenway and not far from the intersection of Harding Pike and White Bridge Pike—was decidedly rural in those days, hence the subtitle of Thorpe’s book.
In the following interview, Thorpe discusses the Dutchman’s Curve accident, as well as the centennial events she is helping to coordinate, which will take place in and around Nashville between Friday July 6 and Monday July 9 at 7:20 am, the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
What inspired you to write “The Day the Whistles Cried”?
One thing I’ve always done, no matter where I’ve lived, is to investigate the history of my neighborhood. I was living in West Nashville when I found a book by Sarah Foster Kelley called “West Nashville: It’s People and Environs” (1987) and there were three or four paragraphs that said, ‘The worst train wreck in U.S. history happened in Nashville in 1918.’
I couldn’t find the historical marker so I called the Metro Parks Commission and asked where it was. When they realized there wasn’t a marker, they suggested I establish one, which requires writing a proposal and showing evidence that the event occurred. In doing that, I started feeling that the voices of the people who were killed were calling out to have their story told. More than just victims of a train wreck they were people who were out and about, doing the things that people do, when disaster snatched them out of life.
What were the challenges of researching a disaster that occurred a hundred years ago?
The main challenge was that there was no one alive that could give me an eyewitness account. There was one woman, Elizabeth Jonas Jacobs (who was 101 years old at the time I spoke with her), who went to the crash site with her aunt, who was a Red Cross worker. But she was kept away from the scene, so she didn’t see much. But I overcame that challenge thanks to a court case, which enabled me to read the eyewitness accounts that people gave in court.
Did you talk to the descendants of any victims or survivors?
Absolutely. July 9 is the one-hundredth anniversary of the wreck and it’s going to be closure for me. The weekend of the anniversary descendants of the train wreck victims are coming from all over the country for a series of events. For example, on July 7 I am doing interpretive walks at the wreck site all day long. Then on Sunday July 8 we are visiting four of the cemeteries where people are buried. Then on July 9 at 7:20 am we are meeting with the relatives [near the crash site] and we’ll read off everyone’s name who died.
What was the cause of the accident, as best you can tell?
My personal belief is that the engineer, David Kennedy, who was in his seventies at the time, probably experienced a medical event. For fifty years he had a blameless record … and had never been reprimanded for violating safety rules. He was known to be cautious and careful. A lot of people think he mistook another train that went by on a side track for the incoming train but that is pure speculation.
Why was the Dutchman’s Curve train wreck such a deadly accident?
The main reason was that the cars were made of wood. If they had been steel cars like the more modern railroad companies were using at that time, there would have been fewer deaths. But because the cars were wood, they shattered and they telescoped inside of each other.
The vast majority of the victims were African-American. Why was that the case?
Most of the deaths occurred in the Jim Crow cars—the ones at the front-where colored passengers were forced to ride. There were the colored cars and then the regular cars and then the women’s cars at the end. Some white passengers were in the Jim Crow cars because if you wanted to smoke on the train you went to the Jim Crow cars because you couldn’t smoke in the regular passenger cars. But there were no white women or white children injured, as far as I know, because they were at the safest spot—in the back of the trains.
How many people were on each of the two trains?
There is no way to know for sure but there were probably about 300 people on each train.
Today if a similar head-on collision occurred, the National Transportation Safety Board would send out a team to investigate the accident and do a thorough investigation. What was the extent of the investigation back then?
The investigation took three or four days and a report was issued five weeks after the wreck occurred. There is no record of any passengers or community members being interviewed. The people who were interviewed were the conductors who survived, a flagman who survived and several other railroad workers who weren’t on the trains but testified as to what they would have done in that situation.
Is it true that there was another fatal accident in the same place on the same line a few months prior?
Yes, it was on February 2, 1918. It was two freight trains and it was a rear-end collision in which three railroad men were killed. They were completely different kinds of accidents, but it happened in nearly the same spot.
Why do so few people remember the accident? Even in Nashville, very few people seem to be aware that the deadliest train wreck in American history happened here.
I think that’s a myth. There are so many new people in Nashville—like me, I’m not from here—and they have never heard of it, but if you talk to people whose families have been here for generations, they have a connection to it.
If you go to the accident site today, what do you see?
You see a set of tracks that what straightened in the 1950s, but there are two great artifacts to the train wreck on the Griffin Creek Greenway. One is the Old White Bridge, and if you go to a little area called the Dutchman’s Curve Wayside there are two railroad abutments; and down in the creek there’s another one that was built in the 1850s. Before the track was straightened, that’s where the railroad track passed over [the creek]. You can touch the stone of the old abutments and that’s where the train coming from Nashville passed over in the seconds before the crash.
100th ANNIVERSARY EVENTS IN NASHVILLE:
July 6, 2018: Dutchman’s Curve Anniversary Remembrance Dinner, featuring the premiere of the documentary film, Dutchman’s Curve: America’s Worst Train Wreck, at the Bellevue Church of Christ, 7401 Hwy 70 S., Nashville, Tennessee, 6-8 p.m.
July 7, 2018: A Day on the Richland Creek Greenway. Author Betsy Thorpe leads a series of five interpretive walks through the Richland Creek Greenway, featuring guest speakers that include Robert Brandt. Walks begin on the Richland Creek Greenway Old Bridge Trailhead, adjacent to Publix, 4324 Harding Pike, Nashville.
July 8, 2018: Visits to the graves of Dutchman's Curve train wreck victims, including ceremonies at three cemeteries, Mount Ararat, Mount Olivet and Mount Calvary. 1-2:30 p.m.
July 9, 2018: Memorial Observance by Bellevue Harpeth Historical Society on the Richland Creek Greenway Old Bridge Trailhead (overlooking the train wreck site). Observance will include recitation of the names of those who died, with a moment of silence to follow. The Old Bridge Trailhead is adjacent to Publix, 4324 Harding Pike, Nashville.