The Great Train Wreck of 1918 occurred on July 9, 1918, in Nashville, Tennessee. Two passenger trains, operated by the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway ("NC&StL"), collided head-on, costing at least 101 lives and injuring an additional 171. It is considered the worst rail accident in United States history, though estimates of the death toll of this accident overlap with that of the Malbone Street Wreck in Brooklyn the same year.
The two trains involved were the No. 4, scheduled to depart Nashville for Memphis, Tennessee at 7:00 a.m., and the No. 1 from Memphis, about a half-hour late for a scheduled arrival in Nashville at 7:10 a.m. At about 7:20 a.m., the two trains collided while traversing a section of single track line known as "Dutchman's Curve" west of downtown, in the present-day neighborhood of Belle Meade. The trains were each traveling at an estimated 50 to 60 miles per hour; the impact derailed them both, and destroyed several wooden cars.
An investigation by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) attributed the cause of the accident to several factors, notably serious errors by the crew of train No. 4 and tower operators, all of whom failed to properly account for the presence of the train No. 1 on the line. The ICC also pointed to a lack of a proper system for the accurate determination of train positions and noted that the wooden construction of the cars greatly increased the number of fatalities.
At 7:07 a.m. in the morning of the accident, the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis ("NC&StL") train No. 4 departed Union Station in Nashville, bound for Memphis. The train, pulled by locomotive No. 282, consisted of two mail and baggage cars and six wooden coaches.
Meanwhile, train No. 1, pulled by locomotive No. 281, was heading into Nashville from Memphis. Containing one baggage car, six wooden coaches, and two Pullman sleeping cars of steel construction, train No. 1 had departed McKenzie four hours earlier, and passed Bellevue at 7:09 a.m., thirty-five minutes behind schedule.
Both trains required the use of a single-track section approximately 10 miles (16 km) long in the western portion of Nashville. According to contemporary practices, the inbound train (No. 1) retained the right-of-way. Thus, the railroad dispatch informed the crew of the opposing (No. 4) train of the locomotive number of the No. 1, with the orders to stop in the double-track section if the crew did not visually identify the passing No. 1 before they reached the interlocking tower known as "Shops Junction", where the single-track section began. The term "Shops" referred to the railroad's massive repair and refueling shops including its largest roundhouse. This was not a passenger stop but rather the junction where the railroad's mainline track to Memphis narrowed down to just one track.
While train No. 4 traversed the double-track section, the conductor delegated the responsibility of identifying No. 1 to the remainder of the crew. While collecting tickets, the conductor mistook the sound of a passing switch engine with empty passenger cars as No. 1. The crew either made the same error or were negligent in properly identifying the train.
As No. 4 approached the interlocking tower at Shops Junction, tower operator J. S. Johnson showed a clear signal from the tower's train order signals, indicating all was clear. As he stopped to record the train in his logs, he noticed that there was no entry showing that the opposing train No. 1 had passed. Johnson reported to the dispatcher who telegraphed back, "He meets No. 1 there, can you stop him?" Johnson sounded the emergency whistle, but there was no one at the rear of No. 4 to hear it. The train passed on the assumption that the clear train order board indicated that the line ahead was clear. Also, the engineman and conductor failed to visually inspect the train register at Shops Junction to ascertain as to whether No. 1 had yet arrived. That was required by operating instructions issued by the railroad's management prior to the wreck.
Shortly after 7:20 a.m. the two trains collided at Dutchman's Grade near White Bridge Road. It is estimated that the westbound train was traveling at about 50 mph while the Nashville-bound train was running at 60 mph. Many of the wooden cars were crushed or hurled sideways. The sound of the collision could be heard two miles (3 km) away.
This was to have been the last trip before retirement of the engineer of the Nashville-bound train.
The Interstate Commerce Commission listed the dead at 101, though some reports listed the death toll as high as 121. At least 171 people were injured. Many of the victims were African American laborers from Arkansas and Memphis who were coming to work at the gunpowder plant in Old Hickory outside of Nashville. As many as 50,000 people came to the track that day to help rescue survivors, search for loved ones, or simply witness the tragic scene.
In its official report, the Interstate Commerce Commission was harsh on the railroad. A combination of operating practices, human error and lax enforcement of operating rules led to this worst passenger train wreck in U.S. history. Had the signal tower operator properly left his signal at danger, the conductor monitored his train's progress rather than entrusting it to a subordinate, and had the crew inspected the train register at Shops Junction as required, the accident would not have happened.
This wreck provided the impetus for most railroads to switch to all-steel passenger cars versus wood and steel.
In the 1970s, songwriters Bobby Braddock and Rafe VanHoy told the story of the trainwreck in the song "The Great Nashville Railroad Disaster (A True Story)". The song was recorded by Country music singer David Allan Coe on his 1980 album I've Got Something to Say.