One of the worst passenger rail accidents in United States history occurred July 9, 1918, at the Dutchman's Grade, in Belle Meade, five miles west of Nashville. The southbound Memphis to Atlanta Passenger Express No. 1 collided head-on with a westbound local, Train No. 4, at a place where a curve, plus a slight grade (the Dutchman's Grade), wooded terrain, and an overhead bridge made it impossible for the engineers to see one another until it was too late. Deaths from the accident totaled 101 people.
The No. 1 Express normally arrived in Nashville at 7:10 a.m. while Train No. 4 usually left Nashville at 7:00 a.m. As a general rule, they met on a double track between Union Station and the railroad shops two and a half miles west of town. By written orders, the Express (No. 1) always had the right-of-way; whenever it was late, No. 4 was to wait on the side track until it passed. On July 9, 1918, the No. 1 Express was about thirty minutes late, and No. 4 was about seven minutes late. Coincidentally, about this same time a switch engine pulling ten freight cars joined the traffic, passing No. 4 on the double tracks, inbound for Nashville. What happened next is anybody's guess. The engineer of No. 4 may have mistaken the smaller, switch engine for the express. Whatever the reason, he immediately pulled his engine out onto the main track and began increasing his speed to fifty miles per hour. Meanwhile the express was unknowingly racing toward him at the same speed.
The resulting collision demolished both locomotives and many of the other rail cars. Some coaches literally “telescoped,” pushing into and through the cars ahead, bending, splintering, and squashing everything in their path, including passengers. No. 1 derailed to the west side of the track and No. 4 to the east side. Behind No. 1 the baggage car and the next three wooden passenger coaches were crushed and scattered around the scene. Thirty casualties were found under the baggage car alone. Five wooden passenger coaches behind No. 4 were ripped apart and derailed. The last three cars were not derailed and only slightly damaged. Fires broke out at several locations within the wreck, hampering rescue efforts and causing additional casualties and injuries.
The collision was heard for miles, and there were several eyewitnesses. The number of dead and injured was variously reported, but the official Interstate Commerce Commission figure was 101 killed and another 100 or so injured. Some of the injured undoubtedly died later. Most of the victims were soldiers and black laborers (from as far away as Texas) en route to the DuPont munitions plant at Old Hickory.