'That mournful sound'
80 years ago, two trains collided, changing
the face of Nashville
From The TENNESSEAN
Sunday, July 5, 1998
By Mike Kilen Staff
The railroad track hides in the armpit
of Nashville, beneath the bustling traffic and behind the office towers
and strip malls.
The used-but-forgotten tracks parallel West
End behind Centennial Park, cross Murphy Road and take a sudden turn
south by McCabe Park.
That curve, Dutchman's Curve, still evokes
memories of a horrible day in Nashville history.
A bit farther south behind Belle Meade Plaza
at White Bridge Road and Harding is an old, crumbling bridge where Frank
Fletcher of Nashville stood that day 80 years ago, looking down on the
Descend the wooden and weedy embankment and
the smell of oil on railroad ties and an eerie quiet and heat suffocate
you. Colorful graffiti on a bridge support says: Welcome to the
In the distance you can hear a train chugging,
coming down the tracks with force and speed and purpose.
And you imagine a mighty collision.
"Every time I drive over White Bridge Road
I think of it," says the 94-year old Fletcher. "The scene has
occurred to me time after time... The horror of it."
July 9, 1918
The Union Station was crowded on the early
Tuesday morning. Most railroad stations were during World War
I, transporting soldiers and workers to plants geared up for war.
The Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis
train No. 4 was preparing for its trip toward Memphis.
Willis M. Farris, an honored Nashville citizen
who had made the lumber industry here famous the world over, went to
take a seat.
A young bookkeeper, seeing the older man, offered
Farris his seat, which he graciously took in the crowded car.
At the same time, Robert D. Corbitt, the brakeman
for the east-bound No. 1 heading to Nashville from Memphis, decided
for no particular reason to check out the rear of the train. That
train was packed with passengers, many of them workers traveling to
the DuPont plant in Old Hickory.
Among them was 18-year-old George Scott, scared
of the large, bustling crowd of strangers on his first trip away from
home. He was headed to Nashville to play his part in the war effort,
producing powder at DuPont.
An irritating vision kept awakening him on
that night train. from Memphis. Something horrible was going to
happen. At 6 a.m. he left his seat and went to the passenger car
behind his and, for no reason he could recall, he pulled the shade and
The decisions made that morning would be played
out for generations by survivors of the dead and descendents of the
The veteran engineers on both those trains
were running late that morning. Engineer David Kennedy pulled
his No. 4 out of Union Station at 7:07 a.m., seven minutes late, while
No. 1 was chugging in from the west, 35 minutes late.
No. 1 had the right of way so it was the trainmen
of No. 4 who had to keep a lookout for No. 1 running past them on the
double tracks heading into Union Station. If they didn't see No.
1 before hitting a 10-mile stretch of single track west of the city's
center, they must stop.
Once passing that track fork, there was no
As the trains rumbled forward, tower operator
J. S. Johnson showed train No. 4 a green sign from the tall, wooden
tower, which meant all was clear. As he stopped to record it,
"No. 4 passed tower 7:15 a.m." his hand froze. He could find no
entry that No. 1 had passed.
Johnson reported to the dispatcher who telegraphed
back. "He meets No. 1 there, can you stop him?" Johnson
blew the emergency whistle but no one stood at the rear of the doomed
No. 4 to hear it.
"Along about 6 that morning something kept
telling me that something bad was going to happen," Scott told Nashville
songwriter Bobby Braddock in 1983. Braddock had become fascinated
with the event on Dutchman's curve and interviewed survivors, such as
Scott, on tape.
"So about 6 that morning I came out of that
coach, into the front end of this coach. Instead of leaning over
trying to get a little rest, I pulled the shade down over the glass."
Train No. 4 snaked around the curve, blind
to what was ahead, as No. 1 approached the White Bridge Road area.
"He told me that he was riding in the engine
like he normally did," says Thomas Vester of Nashville, a nephew who
was raised by Robert Corbitt, brakeman on No. 1 that morning.
"But he went to the rear of the train. Something just told him
to go back there."
The end of the curve approached and the trains
each chugged upwards of 60 miles per hour. A horrible site appeared
around the blind corner.
Two trains, one track.
Kennedy wildly pulled the brake lever.
It was too late.
Oh my God!
The two 80-ton engines met, causing an explosive
sound heard two miles away. The ground quaked and the waters of
nearby Richland Creek trembled. The wooden cars crumbled and
hurled sideways, hanging over the embankment. One train telescoped
Scott was hurled across the train car.
He got up shaken and saw people laying about, "blood running everywhere."
"I had to raise up the window and the glass
was falling all over everywhere," he said through sobs, "and finally
I got out of there."
"And I wandered out past a cornfield, best
I can remember, and I run across one of the trainmen laying there.
Every time he was breathing, blood run out of his mouth. It done
knocked me down...
"It wasn't long and here come a truck full
of 10 tubs to pick up the body parts. You couldn't tell one part
of the bodies from another. They were just all cut to pieces."
Scott could barely be heard on Braddock's recorded
tape as he described the fate of the young woman and child he sat across
from on the first train car. The woman's arm had been ripped
off and had stuck into the baby.
For the next three days he was in shock, walking
around Nashville with blood covering his clothing.
Frank Fletcher heard the explosion from his
home in West Nashville. The 14-year-old was summoned by his father
to check out what had happened.
Together, they arrived early on the scene.
Fletcher talks slowly over the telephone from
his Nashville home, gathering up the memory of what happened next.
His father ran down the bank to the wreck,
while he stayed perched on the bridge.
"My father was horrified. He went down
there and attempted to raise the car to relieve some of the victims
who were under pressure."
Many were dead or dying. Willis Farris
had died and the young bookkeeper who surrendered his seat survived,
according to Rachel Farris of Nashville, Willis Farris' granddaughter.
In the years to follow, the faces of those
trapped in cars haunted many, included Fletcher.
"One of the cars was standing at an angle.
This man must have been standing in the door and all that I could see
was his legs hanging out of the doorway," Fletcher says.
"The other thing I remember was a hand pinched
under the car. The man was stuck there with two dead men on his
laps. He was hollering, 'Oh my God! Oh my God!' Nobody
could do anything to help him."
Fletcher vomited and would look no more.
Among the bodies was Robert Corbitt, who lay
"They took him to the morgue," says Vester,
Corbitt's nephew. "They were ready to embalm him. Then he
Corbitt was transported to the hospital, swamped
with the injured and near dying. Doctors were set to cut his leg
"But mama said it was better than no leg at
all," Vester recalls.
Corbitt lived out his life, working on the
railroad until retirement. Doctors managed to fix his leg so he
even walked without a limp. Only a metal plate in his head marked
He survived another train accident in 1951
by jumping from the train.
As many as 50,000 "spectators" came to the
track throughout that day, hearing the moans of the dying and watching
horse-drawn "dead wagons" stacked with bodies head for overcrowded funeral
homes. Coffins, wrote the newspaper accounts then, were "stacked
The final death tolls are still disputed.
Officially, the Interstate Commerce Commission, in those days the investigative
body for railroad accidents, listed the dead at 101. At least
as many were wounded.
"Embalmers," it was written, were brought in
from surrounding towns. African-American family members from points
west descended on Nashville to find their loved ones.
It was first reported that almost 80% of the
victims were black workers from Memphis and Arkansas, crammed into the
wooden cars, but that figure was later disputed as too large.
The catastrophe, the worst in U.S. railroad
history, fell off the front page within three days..
Some writers have since speculated that World
War I was too dominant a story for much of the nation to bother over
a train wreck and racism may have kept others from caring.
The question still remains: Just what
ICC officials questioned railway workers afterward.
The proceeding's notes were taken by the late Ernest Jones Sr., who
supplied them to The Tennessean in 1983.
Jones said the early morning confusion at the
Union Station caused Kennedy to think train No. 1 had passed when it
was simply another switch engine hauling empty cars.
Kennedy was found at the wreck with the train
schedule folded under his body.
William Floyd, the engineer of No. 1, died
on his last day before retirement.
Soldiers were found with notes to their mothers,
grandfathers with pictures of their grandchildren. The scattered
letters from the mail car were sorted among bits of flesh and bone.
Scott was sent back to Memphis with $50 from
He never could remember what happened the three
days following the wreck. And he felt guilt over his survival
while the little baby died.
Farris' sons received money from a settlement
from the death of their father, whose body they carried up the railroad
bank that day in agony.
Out of the bleak tragedy, one son's life course
Frank Farris Sr., used his settlement as seed
money to start Third National Bank, according to Frank Farris Jr., his
Farris Sr. became a leader in the banking business
in the south and the bank later merged with SunTrust Bank.
For others, it meant a lifetime of nightmares.
"You never forget it," says Fletcher.
"Every time I cross that bridge I recollect the sight."
Down the quiet tracks, in view of the electronic
signal posts, which prevent such accidents today, you can look toward
Dutchman's Curve and listen...
Songwriter Bobby Braddock did -- and helped
write The Great Nashville Train Wreck:
"Now every July 9, a few miles west of town,
to this day you can hear that mournful sound...