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Worst passenger train wreck in U.S. history

by: Haney, Jim; on: June 11th, 2007

Publication:Chattanooga Times Free Press; Date:Jul 11, 2007;

Section:Metro/Region; Page Number:14, The Associated Press

History buff rekindles interest in 1918 crash that killed 101

NASHVILLE — It remains the worst passenger train wreck in U.S. history: The head-on crash of two trains — one bound from Memphis, one from Nashville — that killed 101 people at a place called Dutchman’s Curve.

About 40 historians and descendants of victims gathered Monday to mark the 89th anniversary of that chaotic morning of July 9, 1918.

The ceremony reflected the renewed interest in the wreck, spurred largely by a waitress with a keen interest in history and storytelling. Betsy Thorpe says she first learned of the wreck while reading a history of her western Nashville neighborhood.

“I went out to look at the historical marker, and there wasn’t one (at the site) so I started the process earlier this year,” Thorpe said.

Nashville’s historical commission approved the marker in May, and now Thorpe is on a quest with others to raise the $2,000 it will cost. She hopes it will be erected before the 90th anniversary next year.

Besides the deaths, the crash of the two Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway trains also left more than 100 others seriously hurt.

Many of the casualties were among 143 Memphians who had departed the city’s Union Depot 11 hours earlier, headed to new jobs at a Nashville plant making gunpowder for the “Great War” raging in Europe. The victims also included young military recruits who joined the eastbound train at several West Tennessee towns.

The disaster occurred five miles west of downtown Nashville in what is today a greenspace along Richland Creek. The track is owned by CSX Railroad, whose freight trains traverse it daily.

The federal government’s investigation blamed the accident on the NC&St.L No. 4 that left Nashville at 7:07 a.m., seven minutes late. No. 4 was to have waited on a stretch of double track for No. 1 to pass. Its crew mistakenly believed the No. 1, which was 30 minutes late, had already passed.

Terry Coats, vice president of the NC&St.L Preservation Society, told the group that a series of small mistakes culminated in the tragedy.

Both trains were traveling about 50 mph when they rounded Dutchman’s Curve and collided. Survivors said — and the investigation confirmed — that there was no time for either of the engineers to brake.

The report also noted that all but two of the cars of both trains were made of wood instead of steel — contributing to the high death toll.

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