Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Wreck of the Old 97, 1924 (country)

Well, they gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
said, "Steve you're way behind time.
This is not 38 this is old Ninety-Seven,
so put her into Spencer on time."

Then he turned and said to his black, greasy fireman
"Shovel on a little more coal
and when we cross that White Oak Mountain,
watch old Ninety-Seven roll"

And then the telegram came from Washington station
and this is how it read:
"Oh that brave engineer that ran old Ninety-Seven
is lying in old Danville dead"

'Cause he was going down the grade makin' ninety miles an hour
when the whistle broke into a scream
He was found in the wreck, with his hand on the throttle,
scalded to death by the steam

Now all you ladies you better take warnin'
from this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to a true lovin' husband
he may leave you and never return

This is a cowboy song if I ever heard one. Better yet, it's a train song, and who doesn't love train songs?! It was originally recorded by G.B. Grayson & Henry Whittier in 1924, yet this ballad is revered by nearly every country music fan that has lived since then. It's easier to count the country music stars who haven't covered this song than it is to count the ones who have. It's a song about a train wreck, pure and simple. Better than that, though, it's not just a song about a train wreck, it's about a train wreck that actually happened in 1903.

"Steve" who is "way behind time" is engineer Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey, who boarded the train at Washington with two other crewmen, destined for Monroe, Virginia where The Old 97 was to pick up the Fast Mail and put it in to Spencer, 166 miles away. There were only two things that stood in Steve's way: 1.) The Old 97 had a reputation for never being late; and 2.) that day, The Old 97 was already an hour behind schedule.

The terrain from Monroe to Spencer was a rolling terrain riddled with dangerous grades and tight curves. There were many signs posted for engineers to watch their speed. However, to uphold The Old 97s reputation in punctuality, Steve accellerate on the down grades so as not to lose speed on the way up the other side. This worked until he reached the 75-foot high Stillhouse Tressle bridge, which spanned Cherrystone Creek. The Stillhouse Tressle was a curved bridge, and sadly, Steve discovered he did not have enough air pressure to slow the train for the up coming curve. Nonetheless, he did what he could and reversed the engine to lock the wheels of the locomotive. The flange of the engine wheel broke, projected over the rails, and struck the underlying railroad ties. As a result, The Old 97 jumped the track and the entire train vaulted off the track, plunging into the ravine below. Steve's mistake cost the lives of 9 people, including his own.

The Southern Railway disavows all information that says that Steve was ordered to go faster to make up time. Eyewitnesses to the event estimate the train's speed to have been near 50 mph when the turn was attempted. The standard engine operating speed in this diffucult area was only 39 mph. However, the railway estimates his speed at closer to 70 mph. Fellow engineers partially blame the lucrative contract that was between the railway and the U.S. Postal Service, as a penalty clause caused the railway a monetary penalty for every minute the train was late. This put great pressure on mail engineers.

"The Wreck of the Old 97" (The Seekers)

(compiled from various sources)

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