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The Wreck of the Old 97 was an American rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train, officially known as the Fast Mail, while en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina, on September 27, 1903. Due to excessive speed in an attempt to maintain schedule, the train derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, where it 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]

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.
DateSeptember 27, 1903
LocationStillhouse Trestle, Danville, Virginia
CountryUnited States of America
LineSouthern Railway
Incident typeDerailment
CauseExcessive speed



The wreck of Old 97 occurred when the engineer, 33-year-old Joseph A. ("Steve") Broady, at the controls of Southern Railway 1102, was operating the train at high speed in order to stay on schedule and arrive at Spencer on time. The 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.

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 the train crew was switched, 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, Virginia, Wentworth Armistead, a safe locker, boarded the train, so at the time of the wreck, there were 18 men aboard.

At Monroe, Broady was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles (267 km) distant, on time. The scheduled running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes - an average speed of approximately 39 mph (63 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 ran through 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 (14 m) 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 consumed the splintered debris of the wooden cars, and it was very hard for the local fire department to extinguish the blaze. The investigation that followed was greatly hampered by the fire and the few witnesses to the incident.

Of the eleven men who died, nine were immediately killed,[2] 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 of the wreck who believed they stayed alive because they jumped from the train just before the fatal plunge. Among the three survivors was 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 to Charlotte, North Carolina, and immediately resigned after his life-changing experience. Two other survivors were Jennings J. Dunlap, and M.C. Maupin. They did not resign, 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]

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 in which he said: "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 (110 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 it had a lucrative contract with the U.S. Post Office to haul mail (hence the train's name), and the contract included 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 that 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, Henry Whitter
Songwriter(s)G. B. Grayson, Henry Whitter

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, with Frank Ferera playing guitar and Dalhart playing harmonica.[7][8] Since then, "Wreck of the Old 97" has been recorded by numerous artists, including Dalhart himself in 1924 under the name Sid Turner on Perfect 12147, 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, Bert Southwood, Hank Snow and John Mellencamp. 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[9] 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 firemen 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.[10] 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.[11]

"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 cultureEdit

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,[12] broadcast on March 17, 1952, and starring Frank Lovejoy,[13] 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".

In Shining Time Station's episode Happy Accidents, the Jukebox Band perform this song. Tex and Rex play the banjo together.

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 'er into Spencer on time!"

Steve, he said to his black and greasy fireman
"Jes' shovel in a little more coal,
And when we cross over White Oak Mountain
You can watch ol' 97 roll!"

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

He was goin' down grade makin' 90 mile an hour
When the whistle broke into a scream!
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
All scalded to death by the steam

A Telegram came from Washington station
And this is how it read
That brave engineer who ran 97
is a-lying in Danville, dead.

So come all you ladies, you must take warnin'
From this time on and learn
Never part on harsh words with your true lovin' husband
For he may leave you, and never return

— Wreck of the Old 97 - original

One bright Sunday evening I stood on a mountain, Just watching the smoke from below, It was springing from a long slender smokestack Way down on the Southern road.

It was 97, the fastest train That the South had ever seen; But she ran too fast on that fatal Sunday evening, And the death list numbered fourteen.

Chorus: Did she ever pull in? No, she never pulled in, Though at one forty five she was due, For hours and hours had the switchman been watching, For the fast mail that never came through.

The engineer was a fast, brave driver On that fatal Sunday eve. And his fireman leaned out at Lynchburg, Va. Waiting for the signal to leave.

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Va. Saying, “Steve youre way behind time. This is not thirty eight, this is Old 97. You must put her in Spencer on time.


Steve Brady said to his black, greasy fireman, Just throw in a little more coal, And when I cross that White Oak Mountain, You can watch my driver roll. These additional lyrics were on the original recording but are not on the Richard Hefner recording.:

When he got the board (some versions say, “Got aboard” here; that is wrong, as in those days, train signalmen used white boards to wave clearance to the engineer. Fred Lewey rode trains, coast to coast, as a young man (hoboing?), and knew the procedures),

well he threw back the throttle, And although his air was bad (meaning steam pressure), People all said when he passed Franklin Junction, That you couldn't see the men in the cab.


There's a mighty bad road from Lynchburg to Danville, And although he knew this well, He said he'd pull his train on time into Spencer, Or he'd jerk it right square into hell.

When he hit the grade from Lima to Danville, His whistle began to scream; He was found when she wrecked with his hand on the throttle, Where he'd scalded to death by the steam.


Well, the news came on the telegraph wire, And this was what it said, The brave, brave man who left Monroe, VA. Is lying in North Danville, dead.

Extra Listen you ladies come here and take this warning From this time now and learn Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband He might leave you to never return


Note: Fred Lewey was a cousin of the Fireman Albion Clapp on the Old 97. Actually, Fred was working in a cotton mill right next to the foot of the trestle jumped by the train, and was one of those who helped dig out the bodies of the crew, fully aware that Albion was to be one of them. Fred went home, and started writing the song the next day., in

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Scott, Alfred P. (1965). "Wreck of the Old 97: The Origins of a Modern Traditional Ballad" (pdf). Retrieved November 25, 2011.
  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 Archived December 20, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Nashville Songwriters Foundation
  8. ^ "Tim Gracyk's Phonographs, Singers, and Old Records -- Vernon Dalhart". Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  9. ^ Lewey, Fred. "Old Ninety Seven (Oct 15, 1925" (mp3). Retrieved January 15, 2008.
  10. ^ Stewart H. Holbrook,The story of American Railroads (New York:American Legacy Press, 1981),430
  11. ^ Freeman H. Hubbard,Railroad Avenue: Great Stories and Legends of American Railroading(New York:Whittlesey House,1945),259
  12. ^ "The Wreck of the Old 97" (mp3). Suspense Part 5. Retrieved October 31, 2009.
  13. ^ Kirby, Walter (March 16, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved May 23, 2015 – via  

Further readingEdit

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