The Wreck of the Old 97


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Folklorist Norm Cohen has astutely observed that “folklore thrives where danger threatens” (The Long Steel Rail, p. 169). The annals of commercially recorded traditional and popular song provide abundant support for this conclusion. In fact, by the early twentieth century — especially the decades of the teens and twenties — nearly every imaginable disaster or mishap was memorialized in song.
Natural disasters are represented by songs like “The Cyclone of Ryecove,” “The Oakville Twister,” “Joe Hoover’s Mississippi Flood Song,” and  “The Santa Barbara Earthquake.” Man-made disasters are remembered in  “The Explosion at Eccles, West Virginia,”  “The Ohio Prison Fire,” and “The Stone Mountain Tank Explosion.” Murder, robbery, swindling and other bad behavior figure prominently in such songs as “Billy the Kid,” “The Outlaw John Dillinger,” “Otto Wood the Bandit,” and “Ponzi the Swindler.”
Other songs have addressed anxieties about new-fangled flying contraptions. For instance a horrible  dirigible crash inspired at least 12 recorded versions of “The Wreck of the Shenandoah.” But wrecks of trains, not zeppelins, spawned by far the greatest number of songs. Of these, “The Wreck of the Old 97,” which referenced the 1903 train wreck near Danville, Virginia, was one of the most recorded songs.
In the 1920s and 1930s it was as popular as “Casey Jones,” a song that is probably more familiar to listeners today. Unlike many versions of “Casey Jones” and other popular songs like “The Wreck of Number Nine,” “The Wreck of the Old 97″ presented the details of the crash relatively accurately.  The engineer did crash while trying to make up time on a dangerous, descending curve. His terrible death is also accurately described.
At the University of Virginia, Larry Aaron found the papers of David George from Gretna, who claimed to have written the original ballad. Aaron came to believe that it was really written by Fred Lewey, originally from Rockingham County, who may have been working in Danville at the time of the wreck. Lewey and Charles Noell are usually given joint credit.

“Lawrence (McFall) made me aware of a 400-page transcript of a trial in 1905 in Danville between the estate of Steve Broady and Southern Railway. Very few people know about this trial,” Aaron said. “The transcript disproves a lot of things formerly believed about the story.”

Traditionally and in the ballad, Broady is blamed for the wreck since the train started out an hour behind schedule and, as the song goes, he swore “to put her in Spencer (N.C.) on time” or “put her in Hell.”

The transcript plus a file Aaron found while digging through the Danville Courthouse provided new information about Broady and the train journey from Monroe and destined for Spencer.

“For instance, I found a memo from Southern Railroad that showed Broady had run the same route more than 25 times. This is important because it has been thought that Broady didn’t know the track,” he said. “He knew the road, but he didn’t know the train because he usually ran freight trains.”

Through a twist in fate, Broady replaced the engineer who usually ran the Old 97, the fastest train of Southern Railroad.

In the file, Aaron also found a map made in 1905 that showed where the train jumped the tracks and where it landed, which proved important.

“I wondered all along how fast the train was going when it jumped the trestle, so I sent the information about the incline and curvature on the track to two engineers at Virginia Tech. They used particle dynamics and figured the best guess to be he was going 75 miles an hour,” Aaron explained.

Aaron also found out Broady hadn’t been ordered to get to Spencer on time, even though he started out an hour behind, and that he wasn’t the wild-eyed engineer legend has claimed. Aaron admits that Broady was going too fast, though, for whatever reason. That truth probably died with the people who died in the wreck.


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