When it crashed, the Old 97 was en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina. The route usually took four and a quarter hours, but the train had left Monroe an hour late. In an attempt to preserve the train's reputation for always being on time, engineer Joseph A. "Steve" Broadey reportedly increased the locomotive's speed to 50 miles per hour, or a 10 mph increase over its normal speed. (Southern Railway officials later claimed he had pushed the speed as high as 70 mph.) As the train descended the curved tracks approaching the Stillhouse Trestle, Broadey was unable to reduce the speed, and reversed the engine in order to lock the wheels. The speeding train continued straight ahead as the tracks curved, soaring dramatically away from them before the locomotive and all four cars hit the rocky bottom of the shallow creek below.
Eleven people were killed, including the locomotive crew and a number of clerks assigned to oversee the mail hauled on the train. Newspapers across the country ran photographs of the wreckage and reported on the thousands of people attending the scene of the accident, women fainting at the grisly sight of the debris, and firefighters summoned to put out the fires ignited by the steam engine. Two of the spectators were Fred Jackson Lewey, whose cousin Albion Clapp was one of the firemen called to the train, and David Graves George, a Pittsylvania County telegraph operator.
A number of ballads were written about the wreck, the most popular of which became an early country hit and the first million-selling record in the United States when recorded by Vernon Dalhart for RCA Victor Records in 1924. That version of the ballad was credited to Lewey and his cowriter, Charles W. Noell. An earlier version was recorded by Virginia musicians G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter for Okeh Records. The music was based in large part on the late-nineteenth-century ballad "The Ship That Never Returned" by Henry Clay Work.
The song "The Wreck of the Old 97" joins a long history of folk songs about disasters. Its lyrics lament the Old 97 as "the fastest train / Ever ran the Southern line," and linger over the grisly details of Broadey being "scalded to death by the steam," turning the story into a cautionary tale for wives, who shouldn't scold their husbands lest the argument be the last words the couple has together. In 1959, the Kingston Trio recorded "The MTA Song," about a man trapped on the Boston subway system, using the same tune as Dalhart's version and continuing the tradition of updating the disaster ballad for changing times. The story of the wreck of the Old 97 lives on even in contemporary music through the country-rock band the Old 97s. Formed in 1993, the Dallas, Texas, band takes its name from the folk ballad.
September 27, 1903 - The Southern Railway freight train called the Fast Mail no. 97, or the "Old 97," leaves the tracks and crashes at the Stillhouse Trestle outside of Danville, killing eleven people. The incident inspires the ballad "The Wreck of the Old 97."
December 1923 - G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter record "The Wreck of the Old 97" for Okeh Records.
1924 - Vernon Dalhart records "The Wreck of the Old 97" for RCA Victor Records. His version of the ballad becomes the first million-selling record in the United States.
March 11, 1933 - The ballad, "The Wreck of the Old 97," produces the first major lawsuit involving copyright. In this suit, the court rules against the RCA Victor Company, stating that David G. George, a Pittsylvania telegraph operator who was at the accident scene in 1903, was the song's original author.
December 17, 1934 - In the copyright suit against RCA Victor over "The Wreck of the Old 97," the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the appellate court decision in favor of David Graves George.
September 15, 1938 - In the copyright suit against RCA Victor over "The Wreck of the Old 97," the district court awards David Graves George $65,295.56.
July 14, 1939 - RCA Victor again appeals the lower court ruling in David Graves George's copyright suit over "The Wreck of the Old 97." And, again, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reverses the lower court's ruling in favor of RCA Victor.
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First published: October 8, 2008 | Last modified: September 9, 2010