Old 97: The Enduring Mystique of a Train Wreck

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A 1903 mail train wreck in Virginia spawned a classic folksong and brought federal contract policies under public contempt. Why was Old 97 going so fast?

Just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon, 27 September 1903, a Southern Railway train engine leading four cars approached the Stillhouse Trestle outside Danville, Virginia, southbound. The engine was Southern’s No. 1102; the train was known as “Old 97.” It was coming fast—very fast—for it was an hour behind schedule. If the engineer failed to make up much of the lost time on his stretch, the company could be penalized financially.

The famous song, “The Wreck of Old 97” (which otherwise is remarkably accurate in historical details), says the train was making “90 miles an hour” when it entered the 110-yard, sharply curved trestle on a three-mile downgrade. Latter-day researchers guesstimate it was moving at about 50mph at the moment of derailment—still, far too fast. A “sharp curve ahead” sign and 15mph speed notice warned unfamiliar engineers of pending danger.

Engineer Joseph Andrew “Steve” Broady had made this run only once before. Apparently, seeing the warnings, he attempted to slow the careening train by reversing the engine, but his speed was too extreme and the trestle curve too acute. Witnesses heard the shriek of the whistle, signaling a runaway train, and saw rail dust rising from the metallic sliding of locked iron wheels.

Then the engine jumped the trestle, the wooden cars crashing on top of it in the mire of Stillhouse Creek, 75 feet below.

Then there was silence.

The 97 Was not “Old,” but It Was Indisputably Fast

The 10-wheeled, coal-fueled steam engine that pulled Train 97 was only a year old in 1903. It was made for the mail service, a fiercely competitive branch of rail transportation in which companies like the Southern vied for lucrative government contracts to deliver mail quickly and reliably.

It was not unusual for a mail train on level straights to accelerate to 70, 80 or even 90mph. Even in the hilly environs of southern Virginia and upstate North Carolina, factoring in stops, a mail train could average almost 40 miles an hour.

From Monroe to Oblivion

Early on the afternoon of 27 September, a Sunday, engineer Broady and a fresh crew took charge of the 97 at Monroe, Virginia, about seven miles north of Lynchburg. They were to take the train to Spencer, North Carolina, 167 miles to the southwest. The 97 was running late because it had been delayed in Washington, DC, waiting for another mail train overdue at the capital rail hub.

According to the famous song, it was in Broady’s “orders” to make up lost time. Rail companies—the Southern and rivals like the Seaboard Air Line and Atlantic Coast Line—denied imperiling the lives of crewmen in order to maintain schedules. It was commonly understood, though, why Broady and other engineers with a zest for speed were assigned to government-contracted runs.

Between Lynchburg and Danville, Broady set the train fairly screaming. A crewman later reported that Old 97 was traveling so fast as it rolled through the Dry Fork way station, about 15 miles north of Danville, that he couldn’t pick up the mail pouch hanging from the stanchion over the tracks. Some witnesses claimed the train must have been doing 90. The engine had been known to achieve that speed, though not in this terrain of southern Virginia.

Researchers don’t know with certainty how fast Broady was driving the train on the downgrade toward the Dan River, or how he responded after realizing he was in dire trouble. They concur he probably tried a radical slow-down by reversing the drive wheels. The song suggests he “lost his air brakes,” but some have questioned whether he even attempted to use them.

The engine, with the trailing cars piling on top of it and splintering, was partially embedded in the muddy creek bank. Broady’s body was found face-down in the creek a short distance away. Ten others died, most of them Southern employees.

A Legacy of Peril

Train wrecks were all too frequent in the days of dangerously constructed steam engines. They were especially common among mail trains. One survey has reported that more some 9,300 derailments, collisions and other mishaps involved mail trains between 1876 and 1905. Some were minor, others horrific. In all, more than 200 mail clerks died; 1,500 others were hurt seriously. Not surprisingly, clerks were offered excellent pay, some drawing more than $2,000 a year—a princely income at the time.

Three years after the wreck of Train 97, Train 37 wrecked on the same line within a few miles of the Old 97 site. Among the fatalities was the Southern Railroad’s president, Samuel Spencer.