Monday, June 11, 2007

Fast Mail 1102

Fast Mail 1102
The Ballad of The Old 97

The Southern Railway train from Monroe, VA to Spencer, N.C., derailed at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, in Pittsylvania Co on September 27, 1903, killing 11. The train, driven by Joseph A. ("Steve") Broadey consisted of four cars and the No. 1102 locomotive. At the time engineers were harshly penalized steep fines for each minute late at the Spencer stop and since the engine was running late Mr. Broadey launched down the hills at break neck speeds to make up time. “At Monroe, Broadey was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles distant, on time. The scheduled running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 MPH (62.4 KM/H). In order to make up the one-hour delay, the train's average speed would have to be at least 51 MPH (82 KM/H). Broadey was ordered to maintain speed through Franklin Junction, an intermediate stop normally made during the run.” (Wikipedia)
In haste to stay on time the train rolled down the hillside before a sharp curve leading onto Stillhouse Trestle, which spanned Cherrystone Creek, at a supposed 70 MPH. Steve saw the curve and locked the breaks causing the train to jump off its tracks and plunge from the trestle.
The story made it’s way into folk ballads as a horrific documentation of the train lifestyle. Furthermore, this ballad became to be known as the first copyright lawsuit in the music business. The confusion began when a slew of people were recognized as the author of the song; Henry Whitter, Fred Jackson, Charles Noel, Vernon Dalhart, and David G. George. “Originally, the ballad was attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey and co-author Charles Noel. Lewey claimed to have written the song the day after the accident, in which his cousin Albion Clapp was one of the two firemen aboard the ill-fated train. Lewey worked in a cotton mill that was at the base of the trestle, and also claimed to be on the scene of the accident pulling the victims from the wreckage. Musician Henry Whitter subsequently polished the original, altering the lyrics, resulting in the version performed by Dalhart. (Wikipedia) In 1933 the courts ruled that David G. George was the song's original author.

Tarheel Press

Blueridge Institute

The Origins of a Modern Traditional Ballad, "Wreck of the Old 97" at

"History of the Wreck of the Old 97" by G. Howard Gregory.

"The Wreck of the Old 97"

On one cloudless morning I stood on the mountain,
Just watching the smoke from below,
It was coming from a tall, slim smokestack
Way down on the Southern railroad.

It was 97, the fastest train
Ever ran the Southern line,
All the freight trains and passengers take the side for 97,
For she's bound to be at stations on time.

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, "Stevie, you're way behind time.
This is not 38, but it's Old 97,
You must put her into Spencer on time."

He looked 'round and said to his black greasy fireman,
"Just shovel in a little more coal,
And when I cross that old White Oak Mountain
You can just watch Old 97 roll."

It's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And the lie was a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.

He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.

Did she ever pull in? No, she never pulled in,
And at 1:45 he was due,
For hours and hours has the switchman been waiting
For that fast mail that never pulled through.

Did she ever pull in? No, she never pulled in,
And that poor boy must be dead.
Oh, yonder he lays on the railroad track
With the cart wheels over his head.

97, she was the fastest train
That the South had ever seen,
But she run so fast on that Sunday morning
That the death score was numbered 14.

Now, ladies, you must take warning,
From this time now and on.
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband.
He may leave you and never return.


Mike Mason said...

Having nothing to do with Virginia, NC or trains, the band The Old 97's is from Texas. And a pretty good rock band too.

Byron Chesney said...

We used to sit around the old RCA console stereo and listen to Hank Snow albums and that song was my very favorite!

SteveLong said...

Have to second MM on The Old 97's. A very good band, ranging from rock to alt. country.