Wreck of the Ol' 97
I’m rather enjoying this look at some of the historical events that have been preserved in song, so let’s continue.
Murder ballads aren’t the only songs that have survived to remain popular today. The industrial revolution has left us with a variety of songs lamenting the struggle of man and machine. One of the first songs to come to mind when thinking about the dangers of steam power is the “Wreck of the Old 97”.
The story of the Old 97 starts in Washington, D.C., where the Southern Railroad signed a contract with the U.S. government to haul mail from D.C. to Atlanta. The contract was especially attractive, as the government would pay Southern $140,000 annually for the mail run, however, the railroad would pay a substantial penalty for every minute that the mail arrive late to Atlanta.
In order to make the run on time the train had to average 40 miles per hour, including stops, on its race southward. That timetable is quite impressive when you take into account the poor conditions of the single track that the train had to travel for most of the run. Even more impressive, the tracks ran through the mountains on the east side of the Blue Ridge. Service was inaugurated on November 2, 1902, and ran not quite a year before the tragic event.
Mail Train 97 was the pride of the Southern Line. She was pulled by Engine #1102, a 4-6-0 Ten Wheeler steam locomotive built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. The run was a “mail only” trip, no passengers or cargo, only the train’s crew and several postal employees were aboard for the run. Old 97 made several stops along the trip to take on water, coal, and a fresh crew.
On September 27, 1903 Old 97 rolled into the depot at Monroe, Virginia for fuel and crew, it was running 47 minutes late. 33 year old engineer Joseph Andrew "Steve" Broady took over as the train left Monroe. Knowing that he would have to make up time, Broady let her rip on the straight sections of track and hit the brakes hard as he approached curves. On the three mile downhill grade into Danville, Broady poured the steam on. Some estimates say Old 97 was going 90 miles per hour or better when Broady hit the brakes hard as he approached the curved trestle into town.
As anyone who drives in the mountains knows, constant hard use of your brakes on a steep grade is just asking for trouble and Broady was pushing it. As he hit the brakes to slow for the trestle he didn’t have enough air pressure to slow the train. In a last desperate act to slow the train he threw the engine in reverse, but it was too late. The train sailed off of the trestle into the ravine below. Eleven men, five railroad men and six postal workers, were killed.
The song surfaced within a few days of the tragedy. There have been several lawsuits to determine the original composer with claims by Fred Lewey, Henry Witter, and Charles Noell, all claiming authorship. In 1933 the courts ruled against the RCA Victor Company, stating that David G. George, a Pittsylvania telegraph operator who was at the accident scene, was the song's original author. There is still controversy surrounding the song’s author. The song was recorded by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter and olso by a light opera singer by the name of Vernon Dalhart. Dalhart’s record was the first “gold” record to sell over one million copies in the U.S. The “Wreck of the Ol’ 97” has become a standard with Old Time, Bluegrass, and Country artists around the world.