Railroad Stories: Wreck of the Old 97 Became Famous

The wreck of the Old 97 became the most famous train wreck in American history.


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Driving along on U.S. 58, through Danville, Va., I'm reminded by a marker, that this was the spot where the most famous train wreck in American history occurred - the wreck of the Old 97.

It was on a hot, steamy afternoon in late September 1903, when Old 97, a five-car mail express train, left Monroe, Va., to go south. Monroe is a small community in the Piedmont section of Virginia and a few miles north of Lynchburg.

Steve Broady, the engineer of Old 97, was taking the train to Spencer, N.C. This town is located between Greensboro and Charlotte, just off 1-85. However, the departure from Monroe was late. Knowing this, Mr. Broady gave the engine "full throttle."

In the early 1900s, all locomotives were driven by steam. They had an attached tender that carried the coal and water needed to make the steam. This was a job tended to by the fireman. The engineer, perched high in the cab, operated the huge contraption with various levers and controls.

Knowing that the train was behind schedule, Broady tried to make up the lost time between Lynchburg and Danville. He called to his fireman to throw more coal' in the firebox. This produced more steam and more power.

Going downhill from White Oak Mountain, some 12 miles north of Danville, the train reached a speed of 90 miles an hour. This was entirely too fast, but the engineer was planning to slow down as he approached the outskirts of Danville, a small, sleepy cotton mill town located on the Dan River in southside Virginia.

The air brakes on Old 97 failed. Realizing the train could not make the curve next to the Dan River Mills Inc. building on the river, the brave engineer did the next best thing that he knew to do. He pulled hard on the whistle to warn anyone in harm's way. The doomed train careened from the high wooden trestle, left the tracks and wrecked next to the mill. Mr. Broady, along with eight others, died in the wreck.

"The Wreck of the Old 97" became a hit song soon thereafter. It is still popular today among bluegrass music fans.

William O. Murray
Danville, Va.

Ballad History and Lyrics

The ballad “Wreck of the Old 97” has a somewhat uncertain history. Virginia musicians G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter were the first to record the song, but Vernon Dalhart’s version, released in 1924, is often considered the first million-selling country music release. The song has been recorded many times over the years, by dozens of artists, including The Statler Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff and Boxcar Willie.

Fred Jackson Lewey and Charles Noell were originally credited for the lyrics, with Lewey claiming to have written the song the day after the wreck, in which his cousin, one of the firemen onboard, was killed. It’s believed that Henry Whitter later altered the lyrics. However, David Graves George, a local resident who was a brakeman and telegraph operator and who witnessed the tragic accident, filed an ownership claim in 1927. Years later, in 1933, George was proclaimed the author. Later, however, the Victor Talking Machine Company, who had recorded the ballad in 1924, was granted ownership by the Supreme Court.

No matter who wrote the lyrics, or who sings them, the song is definitely an American classic. Here is just one of the many versions of this historical ballad.

Wreck of the Old 97

Well they gave him his orders in Monroe, Virginia,
Said: “Steve you’re way behind time,
This is not 38, this is Ol’ 97,
Put her into Spencer on time.”

Then he turned around and said to his black, greasy fireman,
“Shovel on a little more coal,
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain,
Watch Ol’ 97 roll.”

And then a telegram come from Washington station,
This is how it read:
“Oh that brave engineer than run Ol’ 97
Is lyin’ in Danville dead.”

‘Cos he was going down a grade making 90 miles an hour,
The whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle,
Scalded to death by the steam.

Oh, now all you ladies you’d better take a warning,
From this time on and learn.
Never speak hard words to your true-lovin’ husband
He may leave you and never return.

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.