I always enjoy playing and singing the tune "Wreck of the Old 97". One day it came to me that maybe it’s not such a good thing to get such a kick out of singing a song that represents a real life tragedy. I thought I’d better do some research and find out what really happened on that day in Virginia so long ago.
It turns out Old 97 was a mail train that had a reputation for never being late. On September 27, 1903 it was bound for Spencer, North Carolina from Monroe, Virginia. At the throttle was engineer Joseph A. (Steve) Broadey, 55, of Saltsville,Virginia. Broadey was a 20 year veteran of Southern Railroad and quite familiar with this route having spent most of his career in this division. The engine (no.1102) was pulling four postal cars loaded with mail and postal freight and one express car with baggage that included six crates of canary birds that were probably headed to some coal mine to be used for safety purposes. By the way, all the canaries survived the wreck.
The wreck of the 97 occurred on Stillhouse trestle, a 75 feet high 500 feet long wood structure that crossed over the Dan river near Danville Virginia. As the train sped downhill into a very sharp curve approaching the trestle, engineer Broadey sensed his speed was to high and slammed the engine into reverse in an attempt to lock the wheels and slow the train. The engine which had traveled 50 feet onto the trestle suddenly lurched and then jumped the track slipping over the edge of the ravine and tumbling down to the rocky bottom. The cars were cut to pieces by the large boulders in the shallow stream. Of the sixteen people aboard, nine were killed instantly. Engineer Broadey and the two fireman had their skin and hair torn from their bodies from the force of the steam engine. The remaining seven crewmen were severely injured and rushed to the hospital. As word of the wreck spread, thousands of people rushed to the scene. Many of the women who drove up from Danville fainted after seeing the carnage.
Railroad officials placed the blame for the wreck solely on engineer Broadey. Saying he was traveling to fast and ignored the warning signs along the track. But some folks said he was pressured by railroad officials to get that train into Spencer on time. The railroad had a very profitable contract with the Postal Service that included penalties for every minute they were late in the delivery of the mail.
The day after the wreck, Fred Jackson Lewey and Charles Noell wrote a ballad about the disaster. It was later altered a bit and recorded by Henry Witter and then in 1924 Vernon Dalhart released his version on Victor Records. It went on to become the first million seller in Country Music history. Many artists have recorded it including: Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and many others. My particular favorite is the Hank Snow version. Several people later claimed to have written the ballad, causing the first major copyright lawsuit in US history.
At any rate, now when I play the "Wreck of the Old 97" it will have a whole new meaning for me.