The Great Train Wreck of 1918

July 9, 1918. Early morning. Tennessee. Two trains are preparing to depart their respective stations, both belonging to the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railway. Engine #281, on its way from Memphis, is leaving the town of McKenzie about thirty-five minutes behind schedule, heading for Nashville. It’s pulling train #1, which consists of one baggage car, six wooden coaches, and two Pullman sleeping cars. It’s a crowded train, with many of the passengers headed for the munitions factory in Old Hickory to contribute to the ongoing war effort. The engineer aboard the train is William Lloyd, who is planning to retire the very next day.  Around the same time, Engine #282 is pulling train #4 out of Union Station in Nashville. The engine is identical to #281, both of them having been built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in the same year, just over a decade earlier. Behind it are two mail and baggage cars, and six wooden coaches. Guiding the train is 72-year-old engineer David Kennedy.

Both of these men are about to make history.

***

1918. The Great War which will later become known as World War 1 has entered its 4th and final year, but the United States has only recently joined in on the fight. When the U.S. declared war against Germany in April of 1917, its army was small, but with the passage of the Selective Service Act later that year, its numbers had grown to nearly 3 million men. By 1918, the U.S. was daily sending thousands of new soldiers across the Atlantic Ocean to join the fight.

In an effort to make better use of the railways for wartime, President Woodrow Wilson, using the authorization given to him by the Army Appropriations Act of 1916, placed the privately owned U.S. Railway network under federal control, now bearing the name of the United States Railway Administration. This action, referred to as the Railway Control Act, was announced in December of 1917, and three months later, in March of 1918, it became law. The law stated that within 21 months of securing a peace treaty, the railroads would be returned by the government to their owners with compensation. In the meantime, conditions for railroad workers and passengers alike experienced many changes under the new administration, and with more and more of the young railroad workers being drafted into the service, their places were being filled by newer, less experienced hands, placing the remaining workers under even more stress.

Under this administration, over 100,000 new railroad cars and upwards of 2000 new steam engines were added to the railways, costing nearly $400 million. These additional cars, along with others of recent construction, were made of steel, but many others on the tracks were of wooden construction, carried over from the Civil War. This detail would go on to play a key role in the events that took place in Nashville on the morning of July 9, 1918.

***

July 9, 1918. Just passed 7 am. Veteran engineer David Kennedy is pulling the #4 train out of Union Station, around 5 minutes behind schedule. He’s received orders to meet the #7 train at nearby Harding Station for a mail pickup, however, he’s been instructed to hold at the train-yard until the #1 train from Memphis has passed off the single-track. The #1 is scheduled to arrive at Union Station at 7:10, but instead of being near its destination, the #1 has only just departed Bellevue Station. It’s running around 20-30 minutes behind schedule, with over 12 miles still to go.

Meanwhile, the #4 train heads toward the nearby Shops Junction, a train yard just 2 miles west of Union Station. Conductor James Eubank has been given the task of watching for the #1 train, but he is overworked, busy checking the passengers’ tickets on the full train.

As the #4 passes through the Shops junction, a switch engine pulling 10 passenger cars passes by, and it’s mistaken for the #1. At 7:15, the #4 departs the Shops junction and pulls onto the single track, starting its route toward Harding Station. At the same time, the tardy #1 train barrels down the same track in the opposite direction.

Logging the passage of the #4, a tower operator named J.S. Johnson contacts the Union Station dispatcher, only to learn that the #1 had not yet passed, and that the two trains are headed straight toward each other. Johnson runs outside and blows the emergency whistle, signaling to the #4’s flagman to stop the train. But the rookie flagman, named Sinclair, is either missing from his post, or simply unaware of the nature of Johnson’s signals.

Onboard the #1 train, the munitions workers are preparing for their arrival in Nashville, and engineer Lloyd is preparing for his final arrival at Union Station before retirement. But both trains are nearing a blind, horseshoe bend in the track, called “Dutchman’s Curve.”

At 7:20 am, the westbound #4 collides with the eastbound #1. The wooden passenger cars located in the front of each train, those designated for colored passengers and as smoking cars, drive into one another.

***

Terry Coats, a member of the NC&St.L Preservation Society, compared the impact of the wooden cars upon one another to the way a telescope collapses into itself. I spoke with Mr. Coats regarding this event, and in describing his time spent scouring the photographs of the wreck for details, counting the number of cars he knows should be on the train, he said simply, “I can’t find one of the cars. It’s just gone.”

As many as 50,000 people flocked to the scene. Doctors and nurses came to tend to the wounded. Nuns from the nearby St. Mary’s Orphanage brought typewriters so that letters could be sent to the families of survivors. Estimates for the number of dead and wounded continued to rise, and among the deceased were both engineers, the veteran Kennedy, and the soon-to-retire Lloyd. Along with them, Major George Hall, a porter on train #4, having worked for the NC&St.L Railway for over 20 years. He left behind a wife, three daughters, and two sons; Douglas Bates, Sr., a businessman, and father of 4; John T. Nolan, a Nashville resident, who had walked up front to the smoking cars (the Jim Crow cars) for a smoke. Among the deceased listed in next morning’s edition of the Nashville Tennessean were 43 unidentifiable individuals, 40 of which were African-American.

But despite the gravity of the event, it vanished from the newspapers rather quickly. Some believe this influenced by the USRA or ICC in an effort to, effectively, sweep the news under the rug. It was, in fact, the second deadly railway accident in the course of less than a month (a wreck involving a Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus train and an empty military transport train with an engineer who fell asleep occurred just a few weeks prior on June 22nd. That wreck killed 86 and injured well over 100). Others attribute the lack of continued coverage to the fact that the War was consuming everyone’s attention. Even on July 10th, just a day after the Nashville Wreck, above the headline that referred to the event was a smaller header that read: “French Advance Lines And Occupy Loge And Porte Farms.” In an interview regarding the wreck, Nashville historian David Ewing noted that there were 647 American deaths in the war during the week of the wreck, and 703 the week before. Either way, the coverage of what is still to date the deadliest railway accident in U.S. history did not last long.

On a positive note, however, many speak about a more positive aspect of the tragic day, specifically of how the Color Line, which was certainly stark in 1918, disappeared for a while. Whites were taken to black hospitals, and vice versa. For one day, or at least, for a few hours, the city of Nashville was desegregated. It’s moments in time like this one that make me think of the quote made by a hero of mine, Fred Rogers, a quote with a truth that shouldn’t require the presence of a tragedy to be understood.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Fred Rogers***

I made a documentary about this event, which follows the first half of the narrative provided in this post. The documentary can be viewed in full on Vimeo at this address:

https://vimeo.com/332146894?utm_source=email&utm_medium=vimeo-cliptranscode-201504&utm_campaign=29220