Folklore Friday: The Wreck of the Old 97

I normally blog about myths or writing, but I have a passion for history and folklore too. Today, I couldn’t resist sharing an old tale that recently caught my attention.

I love trains, especially old steam locomotives. I don’t know much about them, but I’m always eager to learn more. Like old clipper ships, they are symbol of a bygone era, often viewed in a romantic light. In truth, working for a railroad was gritty, dangerous business.

folk n skiffleNot long ago while scouring digital music on Amazon, I happened upon a folk ballad, The Wreck of the Old 97 performed by Skiffledog. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, it’s been recorded, re-recorded, and recorded some more by all manner of artists.

The ballad tells the tale of “Old 97” a train that will forever live in the annals of American folklore due to its spectacular derailment in the fall of 1903. In those days, the post office had a standing contract with the railroad for the delivery of mail. Unlike passenger and freight trains, Old 97 routinely ran at a high rate of speed in order to ensure timely delivery. Dubbed the “Fast Mail,” she had precedence over all other trains. Passenger trains and freight trains alike were required to clear the track ahead of her; passenger trains by ten minutes, freight trains by a full thirty minutes.

Southern Railway—the company that owned her—was penalized for every minute she ran behind, but received a hefty chunk of change from Congress when she arrived on time. She was highly lucrative for Southern, thus the “old” in her name didn’t relate to age, but rather Southern’s glowing pride in their beloved Fast Mail. Perhaps that is why her destruction has resonated so strongly down through the decades.

On September 27, 1903, Engineer Joseph A. Broady (known as “Steve” to his friends) took charge of the train in Monroe, Virginia. According to the ballad, he was given the following instructions (note “38” relates to an elite passenger train Southern also ran):

Well, they gave him orders in Monroe, Virginia,
saying “Steve, you’re way behind time.”
This is not 38, it’s Old 97,
you must put her into Spencer on time.

In reality, Southern Railway gave Broady “run late” orders, dictating he had to arrive in Spencer forty-five minutes late, allowing him to make up only twenty minutes during his run from Monroe (the train was already an hour late when it arrived from Washington D.C., and lost another five minutes of time as Broady and his crew took over).

Steve had never run Old 97 before, but he was an experienced engineer.  According to legend he vowed to put the train into Spencer on time, or “put her into hell.” The route was a track that included elevation changes, sharp turns, and steep grades. Because of the high rate of speed he maintained, it’s believed Broady did something called ”whittling”—applying his airbrakes too frequently without giving them ample time to recharge. When he needed to slow down dramatically on an approach to Stillhouse Trestle, they failed him.  From the song:

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And Lima’s on a three-mile grade;
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
You can see what a jump he made.

Photo of the Wreck of the Old 97 , courtesy WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Photo of the Wreck of the Old 97 , courtesy WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Interestingly, Broady had run the track countless times prior to that fateful September day, but never with Old 97. Intimately familiar with the terrain, including its danger points, the route should have been without issue for him. Many believe his error in judgment was a result of his unfamiliarity with a light four-car train like Old 97. Broady was accustomed to running larger, heavier freight trains, which responded differently when the engineer applied the brakes.

Old 97 derailed when Steve Broady approached a ravine spanned by Stillhouse Trestle. That framework rose forty-five feet in the air from the ground below. According to the song :

He was going down grade, doing ninety miles an hour,
When his whistle broke into scream,
they found him in the wreck, his hand upon the throttle,
he’d been scalded to death by steam.

Many people who heard the train and/or saw it approaching, recall the horrible shrieking sound of the whistle. Broady obviously knew the train was in trouble as he never let up on the whistle. Because Old 97 was classified as a passenger train, he was required to slow to fifteen miles per hour on the trestle. Even at twenty-five he should have been able to make it across, but survivors, and those who witnessed the wreck, estimate he was doing sixty to seventy-five when he hit that point.

The train jumped the track and plummeted into the ravine. killing eleven of the eighteen men on board, all others suffering serious injuries. Among the fatalities were Joseph “Steve” Broady and his fireman.

“The Wreck of the Old 97” is a new book by historian Larry G. Aaron.Such a tragic tale, especially when you realize Broady had made up only two minutes of the twenty he was allowed by the time he reached the trestle. At first glance, I’m sure many would view Broady as the “villain” in this tale, but there is so much more involved. I highly recommend historian Larry G. Aaron’s book, THE WRECK OF THE OLD 97 for anyone who might like greater insight to the tragedy that occurred on September 27, 1903. Written in an easy to follow style, it brings the event and the people affected by it vividly alive. I couldn’t put it down.

As Mr. Aaron said in his book…Joseph “Steve” Broady was barely in his thirties when he died in the wreck of Old 97. Had he not run the train that day, he probably would have lived out his life, and no one would have ever heard his name. As it turned out, Steve Broady the engineer has become a folk legend, and one must always wonder which fate he would have preferred.

Source:  THE WRECK OF THE OLD 97 by Larry G. Aaron
Photo from Wikimedia Commons, public domain

16 thoughts on “Folklore Friday: The Wreck of the Old 97

  1. A great tragedy, indeed! And such things continue to happen, no matter how much technology advanced. Your post reminds me of the 2013 Spain train crash, on the express route towards Madrid. The same as in Old 97 wreck, the Spain crash also happened as the result of speed that wasn’t re-adapted to the coming curve. The first four carriages derailed on the bend, causing the middle and rear carriages to either flip into the air or crash into those in front. Dozens of people died and many more injured. Real carnage. There were also Romanians on that train and among victims. Who knows, perhaps one day somebody will write a ballad on this tragic event too.
    Carmen
    http://shadowspastmystery.blogspot.ro

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    • The 2013 wreck sounds horrible, Carmen. I think that I remember hearing about that on the news. There are still awful wrecks today. I guess as long as there are trains and tracks traveling at high speeds the potential for disaster is always there. Hopefully, we’ve learned to limit them. For some reason this piece of history really struck a chord with me.

      Thanks for visiting!

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  2. So many thoughts went through my mind while reading your fantastic post that I can’t even list them all. I had forgotten what skill was required to operate the trains. Thanks for reminding me of that. Your post sparked a future Vintage Fri blog post for me, because waiting on the train–which ran through the middle of our town–was one of the fun things we used to do as kids. Watching the man hang the mail bag and remove the mail bag seemed like such fun at that time. Also, your last sentence reminds me of the choice Achilles was given by the gods–to live a long life anonymously or die young but with a name that lives forever. We know which one the Greek hero chose. Thanks for the post!

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    • Flossie, I knew nothing about the mail bags the trains grabbed on their runs until I learned about the history of Old 97. On her way to Spencer she was traveling so fast that the postal clerks in the back car were unable to grab a mail bag that had been left out for them.

      I’m enthralled that you actually remember trains making runs like that. I can’t wait to see your future vintage Friday post. As much as I enjoy many of our modern technologies, at heart I’m an old soul and should have been born decades in the past.

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    • Ah, Gordon Lightfoot’s Edmund Fitzgerald is another ballad that resonates with me. I’ve watched several documentaries on it and have done some research. It’s one of those events I need to learn more about.

      Hope you like the ballad. I’m partial to folk music, especially when it intertwines history. 🙂

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