“Shops Junction” was the name given to a railroad interlocking tower just outside of Nashville in the early 1900s. It was a critical point because it denoted the point at which the double track railroad narrowed to a single track. And, perhaps more importantly, on the morning of July 9, 1918, it was also the point at which a critical human error was made — an error that would cost more than 100 lives and lead to what is still considered the worst trainwreck in United States history.
The blunders began early that day. Train No. 4 of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway Company (NC&StL) was scheduled to depart Nashville for Memphis at 7 a.m., while the No. 1 was traveling in the opposite direction, departing Memphis for a scheduled arrival in Nashville at 7:10 a.m. Had the schedule been maintained, there would have been no issues, as the two trains would have passed each other near Nashville along a section of double-track railroad. But the No. 1 train left Memphis about a half-hour late, setting the stage for impending disaster.
As was customary at the time, the No. 1 train was given the right-of-way, so the crew of the No. 4 was alerted that they were to stop in the double-track section of railroad before they entered Shops Junction if they hadn’t yet seen the No. 1 pass them. Neither the conductor nor his crew made this identification (reports suggest that they may have mistaken another passing train as the No. 1), and as the train raced toward Shops Junction, the tower operator gave the “all-clear” signal. It appears as though J.S. Johnson, the operator, had acted hastily, only realizing that the No. 1 hadn’t yet passed once the No. 4 had already exited the junction. Additionally, NC&StL management had recently issued a new safety protocol that was ignored that day, requiring the engineman and conductor to visually inspect the train register at Shops Junction to determine for themselves that the track was clear before proceeding.
Once Johnson realized his error, he immediately got word to his dispatcher, who asked if Johnson could stop the No. 4 before it went any further. Johnson sounded the emergency whistle, but with no one positioned at the back of the No. 4, the whistle went unheard and the train continued racing toward its fate. And around 7:15 a.m., with the No. 4 traveling around 60 miles per hour and the No. 1 pushing 50 miles per hour, the two trains collided at a section of track called Dutchman’s Curve, located just west of downtown Nashville in Belle Meade.
The Nashville Globe, the city’s African American newspaper, reported on the disaster with vivid imagery:
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 of the northbound train through the flimsy wooden coaches loaded with human freight, telescoped the smoking car in front and piling high in the air the two cars behind it…
The scene immediately following the collision is indescribable. Those escaping unhurt or with lesser injuries fled from the spot in a veritable panic. The cornfield on both sides of the track was trampled by many feet and littered with fragments of iron and wood hurled from the demolished cars. The dead lay here and there, grotesquely sprawling where they fell. The dying moaned appeals for aid or, speechless, rolled their heads from side to side and writhed in agony. Everywhere there was blood and suffering and chaos.
And it was the thoughts of those human casualties of the great trainwreck — not just the mistakes of a few, or what could have been done to prevent the collision — that first caught the attention of author Betsey Thorpe. She had initially read about the accident over just a couple paragraphs in a book, and she soon wanted to know more about what happened that day in the neighborhood where she was currently living. “I couldn’t find a historical marker [at the site], and a woman suggested I get it,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Why not?’”
That was the beginning of what Thorpe describes as a “seven year adventure” that found her poring over historical records and death certificates. “I’m a people person, so that’s what intrigued me the most,” she explained. “Most people were interested in the railroad or the industrial aspect of the wreck. But I wanted to know about the people and their families.”
After years of research, Thorpe poured her findings into her book, The Day the Whistles Cried. In it, she tells the stories of men headed out for a fishing trip, domestic workers, laborers planning to work at the local gunpowder plant and many others. She also discovered that, due to the segregationist era, African American passengers were forced to ride in the cars directly behind the train’s engine in what were the most uncomfortable — and most dangerous — cars on the train. Because of that, a whopping 80% of the casualties were black. “As their stories unfold, so does the story of those turbulent and changing times,” Thorpe said in an interview with the blog Perfect Memoirs. “‘Victims’ no longer, these people have their lives vindicated at last.”
The collision was indeed horrific, but as was the case following the devastating fire that had swept through East Nashville just two years prior, or the disasters that the burgeoning city would face in the years to come, the Nashville community was able to shelve any differences and division — albeit temporarily — for the greater good of the community. “The color line was forgotten,” the Globe declared, “and the whites rushed to the aid of the brother in black, offering any and every assistance in their hour of trouble.” The whistles may have cried that summer day in 1918, but Nashville’s enduring spirit surely dried those tears and were able to bring some peace in the midst of tragedy.
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