BY KINNEY RORRER—
Though it was referred to as “Old 97”, the fast mail train that crashed into a ravine not far from the north bank of the Dan River in Danville, Virginia on September 27, 1903, the train had in fact been in service only ten months. The term “Old 97” was a term of endearment as in “old friend” or “old pal.”
Certainly it should have been a term of endearment for Southern Railroad as it brought in a $140,000 yearly federal subsidy to transport the US mail from Washington to Atlanta. However, the federal contract would fine the railroad $200 for each hour the train was late in delivering the mail ( approximately $5,000 in today’s money). Southern Railroad faced the possibility of such a fine as the “Old 97” was an hour late pulling out of Washington Station on that Sunday morning, September 27, 1903.
When the train changed crews at Monroe, Virginia at 1 PM the train was still almost one hour behind schedule. The young 33 year old bachelor engineer, Joseph Andrew Broady (pronounced Broad-ie), jumped into the cab committed to make up the lost time before reaching the end of his particular run in Spencer, North Carolina. It was Broady (nicknamed “Steve” after the Steve Broady who survived a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886) and his attempt to make up the lost time that led to the crash.
Broady, who had worked for Southern for about 30 days, ran the engine at top speed from Monroe toward Danville almost 80 miles away. He passed the last flag station at Lima, Virginia just north of Danville where the Lima grade began. The 2% grade stretched for three miles dropping in elevation from 650 feet to 400 feet at the trestle on Stillhouse Branch. At the trestle he would make a very sharp and dangerous turn to the left just prior to crossing the Dan River in Danville. The 80 ton steam engine roared down the grade toward the 43 foot trestle where the speed limit was posted as low as 15 miles per hour.
While the engine was not likely doing 90 miles an hour as the ballad states, Broady was probably doing between 40-80 miles an hour. His attempt to slow the engine failed when he discovered he had no airbrakes. They probably failed due to his “whittling” the airbrakes on the curves racing from Lynchburg to Danville. The engine jumped the tracks when Broady pulled down the “Johnson bar”, throwing his engine in reverse.
As two young boys playing in the Stillhouse Branch ran from under the left side of the trestle the engine, two postal cars, one express car, and one baggage car plunged off the right side of the trestle. The result was one of the worse train wrecks in Virginia history. Nine were killed outright with two more later dying of their injuries. Broady was indeed “scalded to death by the steam.”
Within a short time of the tragedy two local cotton mill workers named Frederick Jackson Lewey and Charles Weston Noell had composed a ballad about the event. They set their ballad to the tune of Henry Clay Work’s 1865 ballad The Ship That Never Returned (Work also wrote Grandfather’s Clock and The Year Of Jubilo).
In time the ballad made its way orally to Fries in the mountains of southwest Virginia where it was learned by a cotton mill worker and musician named Henry Whitter. While he was only an average guitar and harmonica player at best, Whitter did have the ambition to do something commercially with his talent. Despite some good natured teasing from his fellow mill workers who thought his ambition exceeded his talent, Whitter took time off from work to travel to New York City to audition for Okeh Records in December of 1923. He was fearful of being assaulted in the city so he rented a room outside the city. He went in the city only in the daytime. Okeh, who had recorded Fiddlin’ John Carson six months earlier, finally recorded Whitter, perhaps in an effort to get rid of him. His record, Okeh 40015, was released in February of 1924 featuring The Wreck On the Southern Old 97 and Lonesome Road Blues.
In May of 1924 Vernon Dalhart ( one of the many pseudonyms used by Texas born singer Marion Try Slaughter ) had a recording session scheduled with Edison Records. Charles Edison passed along a copy of Whitter’s record to Dalhart and suggested that Dalhart record a cover of Whitter’s railroad ballad, adding that it might sell well in the “hill and country” towns in the South. Dalhart learned the ballad, but he had trouble understanding Whitter’s rural mountain accent. The result was that several mistakes crept into the Dalhart version that was released by Edison in July of 1924. For example, Whitter’s “Steve” became “Pete” with Dalhart, while “Spencer” became “Center”, “Steve Brooklyn” became “he looked around” and “airbrakes” became “average”. These misinterpretations continued in subsequent releases by Dalhart.
An August 1924 recording on Victor Records by Dalhart became a major hit backed with The Prisoner’s Song. The Wreck of the Old 97 as it was now known, was recorded 19 times between 1923 and 1932, appearing on more than 60 record labels. In addition the song was issued as sheet music and on piano rolls. Because this rural ballad was such a smash hit the major record companies began scouting the South for more rural acoustic music and musicians. This would eventually lead to the discovery of such major talents as The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers among many others. Henry Whitter’s bold initiative in going to New York deserves much of the credit for those who came after him. Whitter certainly would have had the last laugh on those who made light of his efforts.
One footnote to both the Whitter and Dalhart versions is that they each incorrectly related the verse about the Lima grade. While they sang “It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville, and a line on a three mile grade”, the original version is “…Lima’s on a three mile grade”. Johnny Mercer‘s 1940s Capitol recording seems to be one of few that got it right when he sang, “Lima’s on a three mile grade”. Where Mercer learned his rendition is unknown. Mercer, a Georgia native, had gone to a private school in Virginia in the 1920’s and may have learned his version while in residence there.