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The great train wreck of 1918

January 21, 2012
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

On Tuesday, July 9, 1918, shortly past 7:15 a.m., two trains traveling at 50 m.p.h. collided head-on at Dutchman's or Deadman's Curve in Belle Meade, Tenn. The collision was heard for miles, as passenger cars telescoped upon each other, scattered into splinters and caught fire. Victims were thrown helter skelter and bodies torn apart. In all, 101 people were killed; many of them black laborers coming from as far away as Texas to work at the government gunpowder plant.

Today the railroad track still hides in Nashville. The used but often forgotten tracks parallel behind Centennial Park cross Murphy Road and take a sudden turn south. That's Deadmans Curve.

July 9, 1918. Union station was crowded. Most railroad stations were crowded during World War I, transporting soldiers and workers to plants geared up for the war.

The Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis train, No. 4, was preparing for its trip to Memphis. Among the passengers was 18 year old George Scott, scared of the large and bustling crowd of strangers on his first trip away from home. He was heading to Nashville to play his part in the war effort, producing powder at DuPont. A vision kept awakening him on that night train. Something horrible was going to happen. At 6 a.m. he got up, left his seat, and went to the passenger car behind his and for no reason he could recall, pulled the shade and waited.

The veteran engineers were both late that morning. No. 4 left Union Station at 7:07 a.m., seven minutes late. No. 1, chugging in from the west, was 35 minutes late.

No. 1 had the right of -way, so it was the trainmen of No. 4 who had to keep lookout for No. 1 running past them on the double tracks leading into Union Station. If they didn't see No. 1 before hitting the 10 mile stretch of single track west of the city's center they must stop. Once passing that track fork there was no going back.

As the trains rumbled forward, the tower operator showed train No. 4 as a green sign, indicating all was clear. As he stopped to record it, "No. 4 passed tower at 7:15 a.m." his hand froze. There was no entry that No. 1 had passed! He blew the emergency whistle, but no one stood at the rear of doomed No. 4 to hear it. Train No. 4 snaked around the curve, blind to what was ahead, as No. 1 approached. The trains each chugged towards each other, two trains, and one track. The two 80 ton engines met, causing an explosive sound heard two miles away. The ground quaked as the wooden cars crumbled and hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment, one train telescoping the other.

The townspeople responding to the scene took the images of the crash to their graves. One of the brakemen, Robert Corbitt, was pronounced dead at the scene and taken to the morgue. They were ready to embalm him when he moved! Corbitt lived out his life working on the railroad until retirement, even surviving another train wreck in 1951 by jumping from the train. And George Scott? His premonition was right, and saved his life. Dazed and bloody he wandered around Nashville with blood covering his clothing for the next three days. He was finally sent back to Memphis with $50 from the railroad, but could never remember what happened the three days following the wreck.



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