“Sorry we couldn’t remember the Wreck of Old ’97”
One of the things I have been working on lately is an exhibit, Trains over Texas, which will open in the near future. The exhibit is a masterpiece of art and engineering recreated in miniature. There is a certain adventuring elegance to travelling by train, the scenic journey is as important as the destination. The same is true with this scale model railroad. The miniaturized journey passes through most of the natural wonders Texas has to offer, all recreated in miniature.
One of the fringe benefits of being a curator is the opportunity to learn new things, these projects invariably will take you unexpected places, always mentally, sometimes physically. I have been assigned to work on the Trains over Texas project. The train research triggered a long forgotten, possibly repressed, memory of family vacationing. The excursions consisted of long treks along a “vacation triangle” that involved the highways connecting Alabama, Florida, and West Virginia. Being wedged in the back of an International Harvester Scout, entertainment options were limited, it was after all the ‘60’s, even outside of the car with room to maneuver, chores, or a longish stick and an ant bed might be as good as it got.
Singing was one of the ways we would pass the time on these trips. My father taught a course, American history through folk songs, so the sing along selections had nothing to do with whatever I liked that was popular. As a child I was sure these songs actually weren’t popular anywhere. Working on this model train exhibit reminded me of one of those road trip songs, The Wreck of Old 97. The version of this song recorded by Vernon Dalhart, made a mark in music history. Dalhart was a Texan and was arguably the first country music super star. Childhood suspicions aside, the song actually was popular, in Dalharts’ 1924 recording was the first million selling record in the United States. Not surprisingly it also became the subject of the first major music copyright lawsuit. The song had a profound effect on the genre of country music as well. It is fortuitous timing as the anniversary of this American rail disaster is September 27, 1903, 113 years ago today. The lyrics are historically accurate and tell a sad story that gripped the nation, not unlike more familiar, more recent events. The effect on the national psyche being akin to the Challenger disaster.
As the song has been covered by many artists over the decades the lyrics have varied slightly. What I did not understand then, was the odd uncool songs of my youth are living history . The words get memorized and repeated but the original story, the historical data, hides in plain sight just below the surface, waiting to be discovered by the curious. There is history written, and there is history sung, history sung is intimate and personal. My father knew it then, I know it now. The lyrics I was taught go:
He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia
Saying Steve you’re way behind time
This is not 38 but old 97
You must put’er into Spencer on time
He turned ‘round and said to his blackened, greasy fireman,
Shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You just watch old 97 roll.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
Going on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrakes
You should have seen what a jump he made
He was rolling down the tracks doing 90 miles an hour
When his whistle broke into a scream
And they found him in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
Scalded to death by the steam
A telegram came from Washington Station and this is what it said
That the brave engineer driving Old 97, is lying up in Danville dead
So come all you ladies, you must take warning
From this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband
He may leave you and never return
The trains’ engineer, Joseph Broady, nicknamed “Steve” by his friends and crew, was at the controls of the 4-6-0 class locomotive at the time of the disaster. He was part of a replacement crew of 18 that boarded the train in Monroe Virginia. At the moment the new crew took over they were one hour behind schedule. Old 97 was a Fast Mail Train. The train had a punctual reputation, but also a contract with the postal service that stipulated the railroad would be fined for each minute the mail delivery was late. The railroad ordered Engineer Broady to make up the time. After the accident the railroad would deny they instructed the engineer essentially to “speed”. After the investigations, recriminations and legal haggling, the accident was blamed on the engineer. Placed back in historical context, the lyric, He picked up his orders in Monroe Virginia points out that the Railroad was at least partially to blame.
It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchberg to Danville. The rail line from Lynchburg to Danville was indeed treacherous, being a mixture of tight curves and rolling terrain. Signs were posted along the tracks to warn trains of upcoming dangers. The run featured a three mile stretch of line along a downhill grade approaching the Stillhouse Trestle.
It was on that grade that he lost his airbrake. Many historians believe Engineer Broady was speeding and using the brake aggressively to slow the train near hazards, whittling away at the time deficit. As the train approached the down hill grade and trestle, the air brake was either depleted or inoperative. Engineer Broady reversed the engine but it was not enough. The train derailed and plunged into the Stillhouse Branch ravine, erupting into an explosion of steam and fire.
You should have seen what a jump he made. Train derailments were a common rail accident at that time. Sometimes minor, sometimes major, these mishaps would result in varying degrees of damage to rolling stock and humans. The wreck of Old 97 was different, thousands of onlookers would visit the site of the accident, to personally witness the aftermath and salvage efforts. Of the 18 on board, 11 died, many survivors credited leaping from the train before it plummeted into the ravine for their survival.
Ladies, please take warning. The poignant end of the song, refers to the fact that many of the victims of the disaster were married men with families. Engineer Broady was engaged to be married. None of those people 113 years ago suspected that the words spoken to their loved ones as they left for their jobs, would be their last. That admonition is as true today as it was then.
Trains and railroads are one of the primary themes in country, folk and blues music. I am hoping to create the opportunity to explore the music connected with railroads as part of the experience.