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.
Not 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.
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.
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