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Old Ninety-Seven

September 9, 2021

By Jim Rhodes

This month marks the 118th anniversary of one of the most famous train wrecks in America’s history.

The year was 1903. The date was Sunday, September 27. The time was about 15 minutes past 2 in the afternoon. The place was Danville, a tobacco and cotton mill town on the Dan River about 60 miles south of Lynchburg in the rolling hills of Piedmont, Virginia.

That was when Old ‘97 spectacularly jumped the rails on a trestle and plunged into the creek bed below, killing almost everyone on board.

My grandmother told us the story when we were children. My family lived in Lynchburg, but she had grown up in Danville. She would have been about 16 years old in 1903. On the 27th her family was just finishing up a good Southern home-cooked Sunday dinner when they heard the train whistle and crash, followed a few minutes later by the alarm bell atop Dan River Mills. Her older sister came running to the door.  “The train has crashed,” she yelled, and they all ran out to see what had happened. What they found was a scene of appalling carnage that was impressed on her memory forever.

The Train

Old ‘97 was the Southern Railroad fast mail service that ran daily from Washington to Atlanta. The railroad’s contract with the U.S. government called for cash penalties for every minute the mail was late arriving in Atlanta, so there was enormous pressure on the engineers to keep to the schedule.

The steam locomotive for the Old ‘97 route in 1903 was #1102, a brand-new ten-wheeler. On that Sunday, it was pulling two mail cars and two baggage cars.

The train was late leaving Washington, due to a delay in the mail coming from the north. It was still about an hour behind schedule when it braked into the small depot in Monroe, a few miles north of Lynchburg, for a crew change. The regular oncoming crew had been reassigned to a different train, so a replacement team boarded Old ‘97 in Monroe with instructions to make up the lost time.

The Engineer

The substitute engineer, 33-year-old Joseph A. Broady (called “Steve” by his friends), was the perfect choice. He had a reputation as a “boomer” – just the right man to make up for lost time. He was an experienced and skilled engineer, but he had only made the fast mail train run between Monroe and Danville once before. With him were two firemen, a flagman and a number of mail clerks — totaling 17 in all.

They were still an hour behind time when Broady steamed out of Monroe, stopped at the station in Lynchburg just long enough to pick up another rider and roared off down the tracks toward Danville. Normally, the fast mail train averaged about 40 mph on the southbound run, and the average time from Monroe to the next scheduled stop in Spencer, North Carolina, was about 4¼ hours. To make up the lost time, Broady would have to average at least 51 mph.

Southern Railroad investigators later estimated that Broady managed to push the speed up to 70 mph on the run from Lynchburg to Danville.

To boost speed, Broady employed a technique called “eating steam.” He would yank back hard on the throttle to accelerate on straightaways and then slow the train when approaching a curve by shoving the throttle back and pulling the brake valve, then accelerating again coming out of the curve. Old time railroad men called this practice “whittling.”  Unfortunately, repeated applications of this process can consume steam and air pressure faster than the compressors can produce it.

As he rounded the top of a hill called White Oak Mountain just north of Danville, Broady poured on the steam to take advantage of a straight three-mile downhill grade. He may have forgotten that at the bottom of the hill the rails arced into a curve leading to a wooden trestle across Stillhouse Creek, or he may have had enough self-confidence that he could pull the whittle maneuver in time to shoot safely around the curve and cross the trestle without losing any more time. As he approached the curve, he shoved in the throttle and yanked back the brake lever. But there was no response. The pressure in the air brake line was zero.

There are no witnesses, but the evidence indicates that as disaster approached Broady was desperately trying to reverse the engine’s pistons to lock the wheels while at the same time dumping sand onto the tracks beneath the wheels to create friction and hold the speeding train on the rails.

The Wreck

The peaceful stillness of the sleepy Sunday afternoon was shattered by the shriek of the train’s whistle as it sped into the curve. Then there was a horrible crash as the engine jumped the tracks at the edge of the trestle, pulling the four cars behind it into the creek bed 45 feet below.

Most of the crew were killed immediately, including Broady and the firemen. Two others were badly injured and died shortly thereafter. The few survivors were mail clerks who had jumped from the train cars just before the crash.

Danville residents rushed to the scene to see the fire, smoke and hot steam rising from the twisted wreckage. The local fire brigade and volunteers extinguished the fire and began the grim task of searching for survivors and recovering the dead. The engineer’s body, and those of the two firemen were scalded almost beyond recognition by the hot steam.

Broady’s wristwatch, which was found half-buried in the mud, had stopped at 2:18 pm. He had made up over 30 minutes of time during the wild 64-mile dash.

“There were hundreds of canaries flying over the wreck,” my grandmother said. “You could hear them chirping away.” One of the cars carried a cargo of caged birds that were being delivered to a coal mining company. (In those days, canaries were often employed in mineshafts as an early warning system to test for oxygen. When the birds stopped singing it was time to head for the exits.)

The Song

The train wreck in Danville achieved international fame when it became the subject of a ballad. “The Wreck of Old ‘97” was put to the tune of a popular song of the day called “The Ship that Never Returned,” written by Henry Clay Work. The origins of the lyrics are shrouded in mystery and clouded by a long-running copyright lawsuit that lasted for years, but the man who claimed to have written the verses was a railroad telegraph operator from Franklin Station, who witnessed the wreckage. It was recorded by Vernon Dalhart in 1924 on RCA Victor records and has been performed with variations by almost every folk, bluegrass and country artist ever since.

Postscript

When I was a child in Lynchburg during the 1950s, the story of Old ‘97 was told over and over again by my grandmother – no doubt with more than a few embellishments. And whenever we traveled in the family car down Route 29 from Lynchburg to Danville to visit relatives, the children and grownups would all join in singing the ballad of the Wreck of Old ‘97 as we crested the top of White Oak Mountain.

And it’s still one of the favorites in the repertoire of my weekly bluegrass jam group, who are, I suspect, growing weary of my retelling of the story every time we play it.