Wreck of the Old 97

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Wreck of the Old 97
The Wreck of Old 97 at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, 1903.  The photograph is believed to have been taken a few days after the occurrence of the wreck as the locomotive, Southern Railway 1102, which had overturned, has been righted.
The Wreck of Old 97 at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, 1903. The photograph is believed to have been taken a few days after the occurrence of the wreck as the locomotive, Southern Railway 1102, which had overturned, has been righted.
Date September 27, 1903
Location Stillhouse Trestle, Danville, Virginia
Country United States of America
Rail line Southern Railway
Type of incident Derailment
Cause Excessive speed
Deaths 11
Injuries 7

The Wreck of the Old 97 was an American rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train officially known as the Fast Mail on September 27, 1903 while en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina. Due to excessive speed in an attempt to maintain schedule, the train derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia where the train careened off the side of the bridge, killing eleven on board personnel and injuring seven others. The wreck inspired a famous railroad ballad, which was the focus of a convoluted copyright lawsuit but became seminal in the genre of country music.[1]


The wreck of Old 97 occurred when the engineer, 33-year-old Joseph A. ("Steve") Broady, at the controls of engine number 1102, was operating the train at high speed in order to stay on schedule and arrive at Spencer on time (Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late). Locomotive 1102, a ten wheeler (4-6-0) engine built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, had rolled out of the factory in early 1903, less than a year before the wreck. After the wreck the engine was rebuilt and served for slightly over 32 years before being scrapped on July 9, 1935. While the train was discontinued on January 6, 1907 this was not due to the wreck of the Old 97.

On the day of the accident, Old 97 was behind schedule when it left Washington, DC and was one hour late when it arrived in Monroe, Virginia. When the train arrived in Monroe, it switched train crews and when it left Monroe there were 17 people on board. The train personnel included Joseph A. Broady (the engineer) dubbed "Steve" by his friends, John Blair (the conductor), A.C. Clapp (a fireman), John Hodge (a student fireman) sometimes known as Dodge in other documents, and James Robert Moody (the flagman). Also aboard were various mail clerks including J.L. Thompson, Scott Chambers, Daniel Flory, Paul Argenbright, Lewis Spies, Frank Brooks, Percival Indermauer, Charles Reams, Jennings Dunlap, Napoleon Maupin, J. H. Thompson, and W. R. Pinckney, an express messenger. When the train pulled into Lynchburg, VA, Wentworth Armistead (a safe locker) boarded the train so at the time of the wreck, there were 18 men aboard. Nine were immediately killed,[2] of the eleven men who died, and seven were injured. Among the deceased were the conductor Blair, engineer Broady, and flagman Moody.[3] The bodies of both firemen were recovered, but they were mangled so badly they were unrecognizable.

There were several survivors to the wreck who believed they survived because they jumped from the train just before the fatal plunge. Among the three survivors was an individual named J. Harris Thompson of Lexington. Harris was a mail-clerk who served on the Southern Railroad. He later retired on May 1, 1941. W. R. Pinckney, the express messenger who also survived went home, located in Charlotte, N.C, and immediately resigned after his life changing experience. Two other survivors included Jennings J. Dunlap, and M.C. Maupin. These two men did not resign and continued their work, although they started in new departments. Dunlap went to work on a train that ran between Washington and Charlotte, while Maupin worked at the Charlotte union station.[4]

At Monroe, Broady was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles distant, on time. The scheduled running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 mph (62.4 km/h). In order to make up the one hour delay, the train's average speed would have to be at least 51 mph (82 km/h). Broady was ordered to maintain speed through Franklin Junction, an intermediate stop normally made during the run.

The route between Monroe and Spencer was rolling terrain and there were numerous danger points due to the combination of grades and tight radius curves. Signs were posted to warn engineers to watch their speed. However, in his quest to stay on time, engineer Broady rapidly descended a heavy grade that ended at the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle, which spanned Stillhouse Branch. He was unable to sufficiently reduce speed as he approached the curve leading into the trestle, causing the entire train to derail and plunge into the ravine below. The flames that erupted afterwards made incredible headway that consumed all the jagged debris of the wooden cars. It was very hard for the local fire department to extinguish the fire. Due to the fire combined with so few witnesses to the scene, the investigation that followed was greatly hampered. in the end it was concluded that nine people were killed,[citation needed] including the locomotive crew and a number of clerks in the mail car coupled between the tender and the rest of the train. Only a fraction of the mail had survived, including a large case filled with canaries that managed to escape and fly to safety. Engine 1102 was recovered, repaired,and it went on to perform further duties until it was dismantled in July 1935.

The day after the wreck, Vice-president Finley made a speech where he was quoted for saying "The train consisted of two postal cars, one express and one baggage car for the storage of mail.... Eyewitnesses said the train was approaching the trestle at speeds of 30 to 35 miles an hour.[5]" The Southern Railway placed blame for the wreck on engineer Broady, disavowing that he had been ordered to run as fast as possible to maintain the schedule. The railroad also claimed he descended the grade leading to Stillhouse Trestle at a speed of more than 70 mph (112 km/h). Several eyewitnesses to the wreck, however, stated that the speed was probably around 50 mph (80 km/h). In all likelihood, the railroad was at least partially to blame, as they had a lucrative contract with the U.S. Post Office to haul mail (hence the train's name), the contract including a penalty clause for each minute the train was late into Spencer. It is probably safe to conclude that the engineers piloting the Fast Mail were always under pressure to stay on time so the railroad would not be penalized for late mail delivery.

Southern Railway's Train 97 was in another fatal accident earlier in the year of 1903. On Monday, April 13, Train 97 left Washington, DC at 8 AM en route to New Orleans. As the train approached Lexington, North Carolina it collided with a boulder on the track, causing the train to derail and ditch, killing the engineer and fireman. The locomotive that was pulling the train is unknown. Southern #1102 had yet to be delivered to the railroad at that time.


"'Wreck of the Old 97'"
Song by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter
Language English
Recorded by Vernon Dalhart

The wreck of the Old 97 served as inspiration for balladeers, the most famous being the ballad first recorded commercially by Virginia musicians G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter.[6] Vernon Dalhart's version was released in 1924 (Victor Record no. 19427), sometimes cited as the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry.[7] Since then, "Wreck of the Old 97" has been recorded by numerous artists, including The Statler Brothers (feat. Johnny Cash), Charlie Louvin of The Louvin Brothers, Pink Anderson, Lowgold, David Holt, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Chuck Ragan, Hank Williams III, Patrick Sky, Nine Pound Hammer, Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Lonnie Donegan, The Seekers, Ernest Stoneman & Kahle Brewer, Carolyn Hester and Hank Snow. The music was often accompanied by a banjo and a fiddle, while the lyrics were either sung, crooned, yodeled, whistled, hummed, recited, or chanted. The song rivaled that of "Casey Jones" for being the number one railroading song of all time.

The ballad was sung to the tune of The Ship That Never Returned, written by Henry Clay Work in 1865. Originally, the lyrics were attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey[8] and co-author Charles Noell. Lewey claimed to have written the song the day after the accident, in which his cousin Albion Clapp was one of the two fireman killed. Lewey worked in a cotton mill that was at the base of the trestle, and also claimed to be on the scene of the accident pulling the victims from the wreckage. Musician Henry Whitter subsequently polished the original, altering the lyrics, resulting in the version performed by Dalhart.[1]

In 1927 it was claimed that the author of "Wreck of the Old 97" was local resident David Graves George, who was one of the first on the scene. David was a brakeman and telegraph operator who also happened to be a singer. Witnessing the tragedy inspired him to write the ballad.[9] After the 1924 recording by the Victor Talking Machine Company was released, David Graves George filed a claim for ownership. On March 11, 1933, Judge John Boyd proclaimed that David G. George was the author of the ballad. Victor Talking Machine Company was forced to pay David $65,000 of the profits from about five million records sold. Victor appealed three times. The first two times, the courts ruled in favor of David. The third time it was reviewed by the nations highest tribunal. The Supreme Court of the United States overruled the lower courts and granted Victor ownership of the ballad.[10]

"Wreck of the Old 97" is 777 in the Roud Folk Song Index.

The ballad clearly places the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broady to exceed a safe speed limit, for the lyric (on the Dalhart recording) begins, "Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, 'Steve, you're way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.'"

Popular Culture[edit]

In Scarface, Ann Dvorak sings the song while playing it on the piano.

During the late 1940s, a parody of the ballad was sung that mocked the ties that the folk singer Pete Seeger had to the Communist Party. The lyrics began, "Well they gave him his orders up at Party headquarters, saying, 'Pete, you're way behind the times; this is not '38, it is 1947, there's been a change in that old Party line.'"

An episode of the Suspense radio program,[11] broadcast on March 17, 1952, and starring Frank Lovejoy,[12] was loosely based on the ballad, which appears in snatches throughout the play. The facts of the wreck are changed, however, eliminating all but one fireman, all but one mail car clerk, and adding two escaped killers.

The ballad was referenced in the song "Blood on the Coal", a folk parody song from A Mighty Wind, the mockumentary film from Christopher Guest. The reference seems to be a tribute to the ballad, although the wreck described in "Blood on the Coal" is an absurd one in which the train crashes into a coal mine.

In the movie The Blues Brothers, the band is handed a list of songs to play at a gig. While the band is cleaning up Elwood says, "Sorry we couldn't remember 'The Wreck of the Old 97'."

A version of the song, by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, is part of the ambient soundtrack to the video game Sid Meier's Railroads!

The popular alt-country band Old 97's take their name from the ballad.

In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Starlight Express, CB the Red Caboose claims that, among other things, "the state police they don't suspect I got Old 97 wrecked".

Kingsley Amis quotes from the ballad in his novel Lucky Jim (1954 chapter 5).


They gave him his orders in Monroe Virginia
Sayin' Steve you're way behind time
This is not 38, this is ol' 97
You must put her into Spencer on time

He turned around and said to his black greasy fireman
Better shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You can watch 97 roll

It's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
With the line on a three-mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
You can see what a jump he made

He was goin' down the hill makin' 90 miles an hour
When the whistle began to scream
They found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
He'd been scalded to death by the steam

A Telegram came from Washington station and this is how it read
The brave engineer who ran 97 is lying in Danville dead

So come all you ladies, you must take warnin'
From this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin' husbands
They may leave you and never return

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Scott, Alfred P. (1965). "Wreck of the Old 97: The Origins of a Modern Traditional Ballad" (pdf). Retrieved 2011-11-25. 
  2. ^ Gendiasters
  3. ^ Freeman H. Hubbard,Railroad Avenue: Great Stories and Legends of American Railroading(New York:Whittlesey House,1945),253
  4. ^ Freeman H. Hubbard,Railroad Avenue: Great Stories and Legends of American Railroading(New York:Whittlesey House,1945),255
  5. ^ Lance Phillips,Yonder Comes The Train:The story of the Iron Horse and some of the Roads it Traveled(New York:A.S.Barnes and Co.,Inc,1965),371
  6. ^ Deathly Lyrics: The Wreck of the Old 97, The Blue Ridge Institute and Museum
  7. ^ Vernon Dalhart, Nashville Songwriters Foundation
  8. ^ Lewey, Fred. "Old Ninety Seven (Oct 15, 1925" (mp3). Retrieved 2008-01-15. 
  9. ^ Stewart H. Holbrook,The story of American Railroads (New York:American Legacy Press, 1981),430
  10. ^ Freeman H. Hubbard,Railroad Avenue: Great Stories and Legends of American Railroading(New York:Whittlesey House,1945),259
  11. ^ "The Wreck of the Old 97" (mp3). Suspense Part 5. Retrieved 2009-10-31. 
  12. ^ Kirby, Walter (March 16, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved May 23, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.  open access publication - free to read

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 36°35′44″N 79°23′33″W / 36.59556°N 79.39250°W / 36.59556; -79.39250