There was a head-on collision of two trains at a site called Dutchman's Curve in West Nashville 100 years ago Monday, July 9. It remains the deadliest train crash in American history. But the tragedy has largely faded from the city's collective memory.
There's a song recorded by David Allan Coe from 1980 that tells the story pretty close to how it happened. One train that left around midnight was coming into town from Memphis, carrying mostly African Americans headed to work at DuPont's new munitions plant in Old Hickory. The train leaving Nashville was headed west to Memphis. And both were late.
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 barreled ahead.
The locomotives collided at a big bend in the tracks near Belle Meade, behind a Publix that's there now. Because of the curve, they didn't see each other until it was too late. At least 100 people died.
"The screaming wheels and grinding steel could be heard from miles around," Coe's song declares.
"People from miles away heard the crash and just came running," says local historian David Ewing.
As many as 40,000 people came to see the carnage — roughly a third of the city's population at the time. The site was so gruesome, steel-stomached butchers were called in to help with the bloody cleanup.
"This was a very sad story, not just because of the loss of human life. But out of the 101 people that died, over 90 of the people were African American," Ewing says.
There's a reason so many African Americans died. They were in unsafe Civil War-era cars made of wood. Whites would ride in steel Pullman cars. Ewing says the wooden cars splintered and caught fire.
"The African Americans that were on this train did not have a chance to survive, given where they were," he says.
Racial discrimination may help explain why Dutchman's Curve didn't really become well-worn Nashville lore. But it was also lost in the bigger news of the moment.
A hundred Americans were dying in World War I every day. Dutchman's Curve, which happened on a Tuesday, was already fading from the front pages by the end of the week.
"The names of the dead of the war had replaced the dead of the train accident, and the accident wasn't even on the front page of the newspaper on Friday," Ewing says.
Interest in Dutchman’s Curve has seen a revival, though. Last year, an artist created a theatrical show based on the crash called "Haunted" around Halloween. And in the days leading up to the anniversary, historians have offered walking tours of the site to commemorate the 100 year anniversary.
This story is an excerpt of a Curious Nashville episode from last year (listen here).