Bits of Stone: Nashville train wreck of 1918 listed as nation’s worst with 101 dead
Dean Stone | (email@example.com)
July 9, 1918, Nashville train wreck is listed as nation’s worst; 101 were killed
The Classic Trains special issue on train wrecks lists a head-on collision of two Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis trains on Dutchman’s Curve near Nashville at the top of a list of worst train wrecks in the nation’s history. The July 9, 1918, collision, resulting from misreading a train order, killed 101. Photographs show thousands of curious people near the wreck as clean-up efforts began. Many of the 101 victims were African-Americans journeying to work at the munitions plant at Old Hickory.
No. 2 on the list was on the Great Northern in Wellington, Wash., March 1, 1910, when an avalanche wiped out two stopped trains and a railroad camp near Cascade Tunnel, killing 96.
No. 3 also took 96 lives. It was on the Missouri Pacific at Eden, Colo., Aug. 7, 1904, when a flash flood pitched the Denver-St.Louis express into a ditch.
Amtrak’s deadliest wreck occurred Sept. 22, 1993, when 47 were killed northeast of Mobile, Ala. A barge totally blinded by fog hit a railroad bridge and knocked it 38 inches out of line, resulting in the accident.
The Southern Railway’s infamous Saluda, N.C., grade has had its share as well. The three-mile slope with grades up to 4.7 percent is no longer used by major trains. For years it was the only access from the flatter lands in North and South Carolina to the Asheville, N.C., area.
New Market in Jefferson County became well known after crash
A disregard of orders resulted in two Southern Railway passenger trains colliding on New Market Hill at 10:18 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, 1904, killing at least 56, injuring 106 and in effect “placing New Market on the map.” It is the 12th worst train wreck in American history.
One of the reasons I got involved in these columns on train wrecks, as initially stated, was a special separate issue of Classic Trains on major national train wrecks. It is a most interesting publication but I became puzzled over a chart in its contents. It details the 20 deadliest train wrecks in the United States. The magazine had copied it from Robert Shaw’s “All-Time List of Notable Railroad Accidents, 1831-2000.”
To be honest, I really didn’t pick up on an apparent error until my son, Neal, and I were discussing the wrecks. We talked about the nation’s No. 1 listed train wreck which occurred near Nashville on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis on July 9, 1918. There was a head-on collision caused by the misreading of a train order which resulted in 101 deaths.
He immediately inquired where it ranked the famous New Market crash. New Market was not listed in the top 20. However, I later found it on the list but as No. 12 “at Hodges, Tennessee.” Old-time residents and historians from the state always refer to it as the “New Market Crash.”
The trains involved were a westbound local passenger train from Bristol to Knoxville with three cars carrying 140 passengers and the eastbound Carolina Special from Chattanooga to Salisbury, N.C., with 210 passengers.
Orders ignored, Bristol train’s engineer possibly had heart attack
The crew on the train from Bristol failed to follow orders to pull to a siding just after leaving New Market instead of using the normal Hodges Switch. Station personnel sent telegraph messages trying to stop the Carolina Special and avoid a collision but it had just pulled out of the Strawberry Plains station when the message arrived. Other efforts also failed.
Many passengers on the local train from Bristol were going shopping in Knoxville or to attend the annual fair. A large number of passengers on the Carolina Special were returning from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) where they had tasted something new and delicious, the first ice cream of record.
It was estimated the trains collided at a combined speed of more than 100mph. In a day of far less noise pollution, people living up to 15 miles away heard the crash and soon help arrived from all directions. Those who witnessed the crash described the noise as more that of a strong wind than a crash of steel. The wind could be felt quite some distance away, witnesses told John Coker whose ancestors owned the farm on which the wreck occurred.
Though the official death toll is listed at 56, initial figures indicated 113 were killed. Some records hint the death toll may have been higher than 56. The body of Lee Hill, who had been killed two days before the New Market Crash in a powder mill explosion in Jellico, was on the train, accompanied by his father, his wife, his four children and a sister who had claimed his body. They were returning to Gaffney, S. C. All seven were killed and the eight were buried together in Gaffney.
The locomotive and coal-tender of the local train were catapulted into the air, turning upside down as they flew over the Carolina Special’s engine, tender and baggage cars, landing squarely on top of the wooden passenger cars which were also struck from behind by the weight of the sturdy steel Pullman cars which remained relatively undamaged.
In seven seconds the wooden coaches were crushed like egg shells. Death was reported as quick for most, with many of the victims decapitated or horribly mangled. When news of the crash reached Knoxville, a relief train was organized to bring doctors and medical supplies to the site and take the injured to Knoxville General Hospital which had been opened two years earlier.
The inquiry could not determine why engineer and fireman on the train from Bristol had not stopped as instructed. Reports indicated there was a possibility the engineer of the train from Bristol, William Kane, may have had a heart attack or for some unknown reason been asleep in the crash.
At least two ballads were written about the New Market crash. Neither was considered of high quality but the high profile of the wreck made one of them popular.
Former Foothills Land Conservancy director Brown is in critical condition
Late this week, Randy Brown, the first executive director of the Foothills Land Conservancy, was listed in critical condition in the Hospital of Chattanooga Hospice Care Facility, 2636 Walker Road, Chattanooga, TN 37416.
In 1993, Randy was named executive director of the Maryville-based conservancy which can help owners protect their property from development. He served until retirement in 2005, during which time the organization protected 15,000 acres, particularly aimed at avoiding encroachment on the boundary area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Randy has had health problems in recent months and is in Chattanooga near some of his family members.
Dean Stone is editor of The Daily Times.