Wednesday, January 17, 2007

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.

Ernest Thompson - The Wreck Of The Southern Old 97

Vernon Dalhart - The Wreck on the Southern Old 97.mp3

Lester Flatt - The Wreck Of The Old 97.mp3

Stoneman Family - Wreck Of The Old 97.mp3


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good Post Ed..
Cant go wrong with Lester Flatt and the Stoneman Family...


January 17, 2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

You got that right, Joey!

January 17, 2007 7:52 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

I'm sure you had already planned on going down this road, but since Mr BNH had touched on it earlier, I thought I'd chime in. You do plan on covering nautical mishaps after the rail misfortunes, don't you? Stan Rogers sang of quite a few that I'm sure have historical backgrounds.

I'm not trying to be a "back-seat driver"; you're doing fine. This is only a suggestion.

January 17, 2007 1:08 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Oh yea, what Joey said.

January 17, 2007 1:15 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

It's startin' to look like a highjackin' on the Bus!

Lucy, you and Beer have been a great source of inspiration for me and I appreciate your suggestions. You both know that I normally don’t plan these things out. I sit down at my computer most nights without a clue of what to post. I’ll listen to some music, have a drink or three and wait for the light bulb to come on.

I’ve had a few really good suggestions for future posts lately and if I remember, or just plain get around to it, I’ll find inspiration in those suggestions. I haven’t got a plan mapped out. As the small print at the top of the page says - “An audio blog with no particular destination.”

Let’s just open a cold beer and see where this thing takes us.

January 17, 2007 11:14 PM  
Anonymous gary said...


I found your site after a search on the Wreck of Ol 97, very cool and very timely.

I just received a DVD of my late father, Gerald E. Greve which was filmed very shortly before he took his own life.

His 1954 (I think) Diamond T semi-truck was nicknamed Ol 97 after this song, I never knew why until I watched the DVD yesterday and he said so on the interview.

He chose his demise in 1985 as he took 6 months to get the truck roadworthy to go out and "make a decent wage" for his family. He then drove over-the-road like he used to, he hadn't driven truck for at least 12 years.

He returned after the first week tired. He was required to be away from the family and, I suspect, was met with the unpleasant realization that he wasn't as young as he used to be as he wrestled with a semi tractor with no power steering or air ride seats.

Kind of a man vs. machine story. My oldest brother Greg is a blues, bluegrass and otherwise musical enthusiast and song writer in Iowa, perhaps another song is in the midst.

Great post, and what are the chances? This was certainly by design, God's of course.


January 18, 2007 10:34 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Welcome aboard, Gary.

What are the chances, indeed? I tip my hat to your father, he must have been determined to do right, a '54 Diamond T had no power steering as you point out, nor did it have synchronizers in the transmission. The Old Blue Bus had a similar setup. Forty feet long, no power steering and double-clutching makes driving in traffic a workout. Your father didn’t choose an easy way to “make a decent living”.

That DVD sounds like a treasure, Gary. Your father’s story sounds like a song waiting to be written

January 18, 2007 11:33 PM  
Anonymous Gary said...


Thanks Again. I'll certainly send my more musically inclined brother your way.


January 19, 2007 11:12 AM  

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home