Dutchman’s Curve-100 Years Later

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Railroad history is not limited to Pullman, streamliners, and four-course meals in the dining car. Believe me I wish it was. But to truly understand and contextualize the place of railroads in American history, it is vital to study the bad as much as the good. The “go-to” topic for railroading’s darker side is without a doubt the train wreck. Train wrecks can often be romanticized, especially when the tales of a troubled run are transformed into ballads of employee martyrdom and lost young love. These events often receive special notoriety around the time of significant anniversaries. And this coming Monday July 9, 2018 is no exception.

Travel back 100 years ago and the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway was making national headlines, but not for the desirable reasons. The day began as an average Tuesday with the usual trains operating out of Nashville as scheduled. However, as train No. 4 train headed westward out of Union Station, the very fabric of American railroading changed forever. As a result of severe human error, the No. 4 collided head-on with the in-bound No. 1 from Memphis, running about a half-hour late, at a place called Dutchman’s Curve just a few miles west of downtown Nashville. The two trains met in a cornfield and the sound of the impact could be heard several miles away. Witnesses reported the sound was like nothing they had ever heard before, quick yet catastrophic. An estimated 100 to 121 people were killed with more than 100 more badly injured. Many of the victims were African American laborers en route to work at the new munitions plant in Old Hickory.

Local responders on the scene with cots set up to care for the wounded.

In the aftermath of what would become the deadliest train wreck in American history, a remarkable thing happened. People were not scared away by the sound of the collision, but rather they ran toward it. Countless people and wagons made their way through the tall stalks of corn to help extinguish the flames and tend to the wounded. An estimated 40,000 people came out the day of the accident to help their fellow man in a time of great need and tragedy. Victims of the accident sought refuge in surrounding homes and barns until they were well enough to venture home. Several Catholic nuns brought typewriters so they could write letters for the survivors and notify their families that they were safe. As much heartache as there was that day, the spirit of the people of Nashville rallied and came to the rescue.

View from the Richland Greenway near the crash site. St. Thomas-West is in the background.

There are many stories from that fateful day, but it is the story of how the people of Nashville responded that I like to remember. Anyone from Nashville knows this was not a one-time occurrence but a trait that is engrained into the fabric of the city itself–look to the local response after the horrific flooding in 2010.

The wreck at Dutchman’s Curve brought fundamental changes to American railroading. Wooden coaches were phased out of service seemingly overnight and railroads saw the need for a better signaling system to avoid similar accidents. And in a sense of what could only  be described as poetic justice, the area around the crash site is now the campus for St. Thomas-West hospital. The Richland Trail Greenway parallels the railroad right-of-way and provides a peaceful setting for a moment of quiet and reflection. Anyone who considers themselves a student of railroad or transportation history should take the time to visit Dutchman’s Curve. You’ll walk away with a better understanding of the accident and the true nature of the human spirit.

To learn more about the wreck at Dutchman’s Curve, read The Day the Whistles Cried by Betsy Thorpe or listen to this podcast from Nashville Public Radio.

Historic photos courtesy of the Nashville Public Library.


NSPS Hosts Successful Open House

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On Friday October 13th, The Nashville Steam Preservation Society hosted an Open House in honor of Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway steam locomotive No. 576’s 75th birthday. No. 576 was built in 1942 by the American Steam Locomotive Company and arrived in Nashville just in time for the war effort. The Open House was an all out 1940s bash with the locomotive dressed up to its revenue service appearance. The highlight of the event was the performance by the Moonlighters Big Band ensemble, taking everyone in attendance back to a bygone era. More than a thousand people walked around the plaza and toured the locomotive’s cab. An additional fan favorite was the occasional blast of No. 576’s original whistle.  With the help of a large air compressor, the voice of the NC&StL ‘Stripes’ echoed through the streets of west Nashville after a 60-year hiatus. Thank you to all who attended and everyone who made the event a huge success!!

60 Years After the Merger

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Like many of you reading this, I was never able to experience a J-3 “Yellow Jacket” steam locomotive roaring down the mainline with the Dixie Flyer in tow or witness a pair of red and yellow pusher units return to Cowan after helping a heavy freight train defy gravity over the grades of Cumberland Mountain. My only glimpse of the mighty Nashville train shed was in the mid 1990s when it was merely a dilapidated shell of its former self. Like many of you, I missed the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway, by a good thirty years.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the merger of the NC&StL and the Louisville & Nashville railroads. The NC&StL started as the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad in 1845. After a meteoric rise in business in the latter half of the 19th century, and the addition of “St. Louis” in 1873 as a guiding geographic moniker, rival company L&N intended to block further expansion and dominate the regional land transport market. The L&N gained controlling stock in 1880 but government intervention and public backlash from the people of Nashville caused the administration to let the NC&StL operate as an independent subsidiary for the next 77 years. To quote famed railroad historian Richard E. Prince, “[the L&N] latched closely to the purse strings of the NC&StL Ry, whose expansion was closely guarded as those of a wayward stepdaughter.” Despite strict oversight and company rivalry, the two entities operated efficiently leaving their marks on the cities and the people they served.

Though few buildings remain, the bowtie logo carved into stone still remains on an overpass in south Chattanooga.

The merger of the two roads was inevitable. Financially, it was warranted. Merging the two networks made operations more efficient in a struggling economic environment. Culturally, however, it was the end of an era. The physical landscape of Nashville changed and its identity as a railroad town started to vanish. But the people who worked and grew up with “Grandpa’s Road” remained. August 30, 1957 may have marked the end of a company, but it was only on paper. No. 576, the only remaining mainline steam locomotive from the NC&StL, is the tangible piece that unites the living present with the remembered past at its place of honor in Centennial Park. It’s where my grandmother took me to regale me with stories of her father and how his job as a clerk with “Grandpa’s Road” (in this case “Great-Grandpa’s Road”) got them through the Great Depression. It’s where Nashville natives and visitors alike can gaze upon its size and wonder what was and what could be again. Through the locomotive and all of those who visit it and remeber, the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railway lives on.

Hundreds gather at Nashville Steam’s first Open House in October 2016. Some attended to remember old memories, others came to make new ones.

NSPS undertakes detailed inspections of No. 576, results promising!

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On July 1st and 8th, NSPS undertook preliminary inspections on No. 576, and the group is quite pleased to report the findings.

On July 1st, we began our inspection of the firebox area of the boiler. This including the removal and inspection of the washout plugs, which still where coated in valve oil, visual interior boiler inspection through the washout sleeves, as well as spot-checking firebox sheets for thickness using an Ultrasonic Tester. Inspection of the boiler interior revealed a very clean state with minimal scale, and the staybolts  showed no erosion or “necking” down. The interior of the firebox syphons also revealed that they were clean, and minimal scale. It is obvious that the NC&StL had a very good water treatment program and the shop forces did an excellent job in drying out the boiler after its retirement.

Inspection of the firebox revealed that the NC&StL replaced almost the entire firebox with 7/16″ steel sheets at a very early  time (4-2-43), as opposed to the 3/8″ sheets that were installed by ALCO. Thicknesses ranged from .388″ to .420″. Also noticed was that many smaller sections of the firebox had been welded in, over the course of its service life.

In the afternoon, we moved towards inspecting the driving axle, roller bearing, journal boxes. Upon inspection, we found that all 8 boxes were full of oil, had no water in them, and revealed no signs of rust or pitting. While under the frame, we greased all spring rigging equalizer pins and noticed 2 of the pins still had fluid oil that began to drip out of them as we filled them with fresh grease. We also inspected lubricator and verified they still work and distributed oil to various lubrication points.

The Team met on Friday, July 8 to continue our inspection of No. 576. At this meeting, we inspected all roller bearing boxes on the pilot truck, and again, they were full of oil, no water, no rust was found. We also pulled off one of the trailing truck roller bearing caps to reveal more of the same. On these we were saw not only no signs of water and no rust, but also that the rollers and bearing races were not scored or pitted. We drained the old oil out, after obtaining a sample, and flushed the bearing and filled with fresh roller bearing oil before sealing it back up.

Meanwhile, work on the smokebox door dogs and hinges was being preformed to gain access into the smokebox. After much tapping and soaking with penetrating oil, the hinges and hinge pins slowly began to cooperate, and the smoke box door was open enough to reveal a very well-sealed, and almost new smokebox interior!

To our pleasant surprise, it appears that the NC&StL reworked the entire front end of No. 576 shortly before entering the park in 1953. The superheater units appeared new, manufactured in 1949, with only slight surface rust, and shop storehouse tags still applied to them. Upon further inspection and to add to the argument that the superheater units were new and possibly only had a steam test applied to them, is that in the bottom of the smokebox, directly under the header, we found old Emory paper that had been used to clean the surface of the header for the installation of the superheater units!

The backside of the superheater unit necks are still coated in the coal-tar epoxy as applied by Elesco and the epoxy was burned off and slight surface rust was observed on the units in the flues. There had been some weld repair to the front tube sheet and we suspect the steam test revealed it still leaking and therefore the decision was probably made to not continue to use the locomotive. We also noted that the bottom of the smokebox revealed no wastage, all good saddle bolt heads, and no rust jacking.

To say the least, our findings, so far, are extremely encouraging! We are extremely thankful and grateful for the care and foresight that the NC&StL shop forces had to properly prepare No. 576 for long term storage, in an outside environment, that enables it to be a prime restoration candidate.

C.M. Darden – Designer of the 576 and Steam Locomotive Pioneer

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CMDardenClarence M. Darden, Superintendent of Machinery – NC&StL (1930 – 1957) was a pioneer in the field of railroad mechanical engineering. His work not only led to the creation of NC&StL 576 and its siblings, but he was a visionary in the use of one-piece cast frames and the way he employed the most modern technology of the era.

Darden was born on a farm in Greensville County, VA., near Emporia on November 11, 1887. Educated in Richmond where he took courses at the old Virginia mechanical institute, he entered the Engineering Department at the Richmond plant of the American Locomotive Company as a draughtsman. From 1908 – 1912, Darden served in the Mechanical Engineering Department of the Chicago & Alton RR at Bloomington, Ill., coming to the NC&StL Ry on March 1, 1912 as Chief Draughtsman, to which the additional duties and title of Mechanical Engineer were soon added. On April 15, 1930, Mr. Darden became Superintendent of Machinery until 1957 when transferred to the L&N RR with the same title until retired on March 1, 1959.

One of the early proponents of steel bed frames cast integral with cylinders of steam locomotives, Darden was a member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. One of his favorite projects was the elimination of boiler studs by moving as many locomotive accessories and pipes as possible to hang on the frame instead. The work in this field resulted in US patent No. 1,955,376, issued to Mr. Darden in May 1934, and used by the Commonwealth Division of General Steel Castings Corporation (old Commonwealth Steel Corp.). An image of a Class J3 frame on the erecting floor is shown below.

Later, Mr. Darden’s ideas were incorporated in the design of modern steam locomotives not only built for North American railroads, but also engines shipped after the Second World War to many nations, including India, Turkey, Africa, and Australia. Thus Mr. Darden’s work has benefited railroads the world over.