Train Wrecks in Tennessee
Wreck of Illinois Central Train,
Ripley, Lauderdale County, Tennessee, 1901
Looking Back at Tennessee Photograph Collection
Railroads in Tennessee
Tennessee began constructing its first railroads in the 1830s. By 1860 there were nearly 1,200 miles of track in Tennessee, most running wood-fueled trains, linked together with simple stations and depots. With so much weight and power travelling at such high speeds, the danger of railway accidents was always very real, especially on lines with varying safety and regulation standards. As train travel became more popular and the number of trains on the limited number of Tennessee tracks increased, the chances of such accidents increased exponentially. Tennessee has been home to several rail disasters, including some of the worst and most dramatic in United States history. Such setbacks could not stop the development of rail transit, and the state and its people always persevered in the face of rail disasters to make rail transit faster and safer.
Train Wreck at the Lookout Mountain Tunnel, Chattanooga, Tennessee, May 16, 1907
Buffalo Creek Trestle, Winona, Scott County, Tennessee, March 28, 1915
Dutchman's Bend Train Wreck, Nashville, Tennessee, July 9, 1918
The worst train disaster in American history occurred near Harding Road in Nashville, Tennessee. On the morning of July 9, 1918, local train No. 4 left Nashville headed west, as, at the same time on the same track, the Memphis-Atlanta No. 1 Express Passenger Train headed south. What specific event or series of events actually caused the wreck is unknown. The No. 1 Express had right-of-way permission, which normally would require the No. 4 to wait on a siding for it to pass. Since the Express was running about 30 minutes behind schedule, Engineer Kennedy of the Nashville No. 4 might have thought he could beat the Express to the Harding switch and thus avoid having to stop at the side rail. As Kennedy approached the signal tower, he blew his whistle and received the all-clear from the tower. As he passed beneath the tower, the signal was changed from "all-clear" to the red "stop" signal, but it is assumed he never saw the warning. Just after 7 a.m., the trains, each completely unaware of the other, collided at the Dutchman’s Curve just outside of Nashville in Belle Meade. The curve in the tracks, the steep grade, and the lack of visibility may have prevented the engineers from seeing one another until it was too late.
The collision, between two heavily loaded passenger vehicles traveling at more than 50 miles an hour was devastating. According to local news reports, "both engines reared and fell on either side of the track, unrecognizable masses of twisted iron and steel, while the fearful impact of the blow drove the express car…through the flimsy wooden coaches loaded with human freight, telescoped the smoking car in front and piling high in air with two cars behind it…" Locals worked frantically to rescue the survivors, but the dense wreckage and numerous fires made such work extremely dangerous and slow. Ignoring the risks, some brave rescuers persevered. Despite their efforts, contemporary reports estimate 121 people killed and 57 injured in a "scene of horror indescribable." Their exact number is unknown, but the casualties undoubtedly exceeded 100; many were veterans and soldiers from the First World War and African-American workers. The most deadly train wreck in documented U. S. history occurred because, according to local reports, "Somebody blundered."
New Market Train Wreck, Morristown, Jefferson County, Tennessee, September 24, 1904
On September 24, 1904, the Carolina Special left Chattanooga travelling to Knoxville with nine wooden and steel cars packed with passengers. At the same time, local train No. 15 left Bristol headed for Knoxville, its three cars filling with passengers at stops along the way. Both trains were scheduled to take the same track, heading directly toward one another from opposite directions. The No. 15 was supposed take the switch near Hodges, Tennessee, onto a side track to allow the larger Carolina Special to pass. The No. 15 instead received orders during a routine stop at Morristown to take the New Market side track. After making its stop at New Market, the No. 15 proceeded by the New Market siding without stopping. Realizing the error, New Market attendants sent the Strawberry Plains station a telegraph that arrived just as the Carolina Special left, so depot workers were unable to alert the train in time. A message sent to the Hodges switch was never received because no one was on duty there. The two trains sped toward each other down the main line of the Southern Railway track between 60 and 70 miles per hour. When the engineers caught sight of each other at Whitaker's Farm, both engineers attempted to break, but it was too late. Each travelling at far too great a speed to stop, the trains collided head-on. The locomotive for the No. 15 went into the air and landed on the Carolina Special's passenger cars; three more of the Special's passenger cars collided with those in front. Sixty-four people lost their lives in the wreck; most of them in the passenger cars of the Carolina Special. Amazingly, none of the passengers on the No. 15 was killed, but the engineer and fireman, both in the locomotive, died. One hundred sixteen years later, no one is entirely sure what caused the disaster. Perhaps the No. 15 forgot its new orders and traveled on to Hodges switch, which had not received the order to stop it in time. Whatever the cause, it was one of the worst train disasters in Tennessee history.
New Market Train Wreck, September 24, 1904
Looking Back at Tennessee Photograph Collection
Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway Train Wreck, Denver Hill, Humphreys County, Tennessee, 1942
Library Photograph Collection
Section researched and written by James Castro, Archival Assistant