“In 1918 on a Monday night, I boarded the train in Memphis for Nashville. Something was just telling me something was going to happen,” said George B. Scott in 1983. He was one of the fortunate ones who survived the deadliest train crash in American history.
It was 7:20 a.m., July 9, 1918, in a quiet stretch of West Nashville landscape known as Dutchman’s Curve. Two trains, one headed east, one headed west, barreled down the railroad tracks.
“There was about 15 minutes of unspeakable horror because they knew the trains were headed toward each other and there was nothing they could do,” said Douglas Bates, III, a Centerville attorney. “And the collision was so great that you could hear it in downtown Nashville.”
Douglas Bates, Sr. was on that train. A 39-year-old father of 4 who never made it home from a business trip. 100 other people died that day when the two trains telescoped together upon impact.
“The first thing I knew was this terrific impact and the people were not only killed and dismembered and terribly mutilated but to add to the tragedy the wooden cars caught on fire,” recounted Beverly Douglas who was 16-years-old at the time.
She and George B. Scott were interviewed by local songwriter Bobby Braddock for a song he penned about the crash in 1983. Braddock is sharing those interviews and his song to commemorate the anniversary.
The crash site is unremarkable today, no museum lines the tracks, only silence where devastation once scattered for miles.
When Betsy Thorpe moved to West Nashville in 2007 she began investigating the history of her neighborhood. When she heard talk of the crash she went looking for the site, for a historical marker or something. But there was nothing.
“It just seemed unjust that there was a place where so many people died and there was no trace on the landscape to give any hint,” said Thorpe. “There was just nothing there to let people know that something very tragic had happened on the very ground that they were walking on.”
The ground is now part of the Richland Creek Greenway. A few visitors take time to stop and read a historical marker that is there thanks to Thorpe. She helped find a way to finally mark the horror of the Dutchman’s Curve crash. A recognition after 90 years.
Many of those who died that Tuesday morning were African Americans segregated to the front cars of the train. They were young men looking for work. Too soon forgotten by history.
“I wonder if it had been a bunch of white people killed whether it would have been bigger news,” said Douglas Bates, III. “I am afraid that may be the case. It was a different time.”
Denise Nolan Delurgio will mark the 100th anniversary of the crash. Her family didn’t even know where her grandfather was buried until 10 years ago.
The only story she recalls hearing from her widowed grandmother was about smoking. John Nolan, like many of the Caucasian men killed in the crash, was just visiting the front cars of the train because it was the only place he could smoke.
“She would say smoking killed your grandfather,” said Delurgio.
On Monday, June 9, 2018, at 7:20 a.m., Delurgio will officially mark the anniversary at a public reading of the names of every passenger who died that day. Overlooking the site, they will then pause in silence, a recollection of the moments before the crash heard for miles.
“My grandmother had a saying that ‘you live as long as someone tells your story,’ and John Nolan’s story is still being told.”
101 souls remembered, some for the first time, 100 years later. Rest in peace.
Weekend Events planned to commemorate the 100th Anniversary include: