Engine One-Forty-Three

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"Engine One-Forty-Three" is a ballad in the tradition of early American train wreck songs, based on the true story of the wreck of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's Fast Flying Virginian (FFV) near Hinton, West Virginia on 23 October 1890. The train was on its way to Clifton Forge, Virginia, when it hit a rock slide. Early accounts record that the engineer, George Alley, remained on the train to try to slow it and save the lives of its passengers. Alley died at the scene, his fireman, Lewis Withrow, was badly burned. Robert Foster, a fireman who had been substituting for Withrow and was deadheading home jumped to safety.[1] The ballad elaborates the story, including a mother (not alive at the time of the wreck), excessive speed (a popular theme in train wreck songs), and a motive (a prior delay, and the engineer's wish to make up time on a train with a reputation for swiftness).[2]

Like many Anglo-American ballads, there are numerous versions of this song. For instance, a number of versions have the train going west, from Clifton Forge, and approaching Hinton at the time of the accident. The engineer, George Alley is, in several versions, renamed John Alley, or George Allen, or George Hinton. The song begins in Sewell Yard, or in some versions Sou'ville, or Seville. The cause of the accident might be given as a landslide blocking the rails, a washout of a section of track, or another train in the opposite direction. In several versions, Alley says goodbye to his wife, instead of his mother, sometimes at Sewell Yard, sometimes at Clifton Forge, sometimes at Covington. A search for the song in a card catalog can even be troublesome, as the ballad has been presented under various titles, such as "Wreck on the C & O," "Wreck of the Old Number Five," or "Wreck of the FFV."[3]

The author of the song is unknown, but is attributed amongst others to a worker at the Hinton rail yard and to a C&O engineer.


The best-known version of the song was written down by A. P. Carter and recorded by the Carter Family [4] either (or both) in 1927 (released on Victor 40089B (Smithsonian Collection of American Folk Music - Folkways) and/or February 15, 1929, released in 2009 on JSP Records 2001, JSPCD7701B. However, these may be the same recording. It is also available on the 1993 Rounder compilation My Clinch Mountain Home: Their Complete Victor Recordings (1928–1929). It is also the last song recorded by country music singer Johnny Cash in its entirety, according to his son John Carter Cash. [5] [6] Cash performed the song for the tribute album The Unbroken Circle - The Musical Heritage of the Carter Family, released in 2004.[5] Cash recorded the song on August 21, 2003, only two weeks before his death.[7]

Joan Baez included the song on her second solo album, Joan Baez, Vol. 2, released in 1961. The back cover gives it the title Engine 143 (The Wreck on the C. & O.).[8]

Dave Alvin included it on his album Public Domain

Townes Van Zandt performed a version titled "FFV" on his album Delta Momma Blues

The television show Shining Time Station did a rendition of the song in the episode Bad Luck Day At Shining Time Station.


  • Lyle, Katie Letcher (1985). Scalded to Death by the Steam. London: W. H. Allen & Co. pp. 40–54. ISBN 0-491-03354-0.
  1. ^ Lyle 1985, p. 44.
  2. ^ Cohen, Norm; Cohen, David (2000-04-17). Long steel rail: The railroad in American folksong. ISBN 978-0-252-06881-2.
  3. ^ "Origins: Engine 143/Wreck on the C&O". Archived from the original on 2016-09-13.
  4. ^ "Carter Family — A Comprehensive Discography". Their lasting legacy was a hundred great songs, a standard for duet singing, and a guitar style that helped define country music
  5. ^ a b Flippo, Chet (August 19, 2004), Nashville Skyline: Carter Family Riches Recalled in The Unbroken Circle, Country Music Television (CMT), Ironically, John Carter Cash produced the last sessions his parents recorded. "Engine One-Forty-Three," the last song Cash recorded, appears here and was one of the first the Carter Family learned. When A.P. fell in love with 16-year-old Sara Dougherty, she was supposedly singing "Engine One-Forty-Three," and he happened to overhear her and was enchanted by her voice.
  6. ^ John Carter Cash's Playlist, Apple - iTunes, May 14, 2006, archived from the original on 2012-07-22
  7. ^ Robert Hilburn, Johnny Cash: The Life. (New York: Little, Brown & Co., 2013), p. 624
  8. ^ "Joan Baez - Joan Baez, Vol. 2 (Vinyl, LP, Album)". Discogs. Retrieved 5 May 2017.