Railroad Stories: Wreck of the Old 97 Became Famous

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

| Good Old Days

  • Photo by Fotolia/Lynea

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.

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