The Wreck of the Old 97

Jadon Gibson

The Southern Railway earned a lucrative contract to haul mail for the United States Post Office well over a century ago. In order to continue the agreement they were required to transport large quantities of mail from location to location, intact and within certain time restraints, that is it would have to be delivered in good shape and on time.

One of Southern Railway’s engines, locomotive number 1102, was a 10 wheeler built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was known officially as Fast Mail but was better known as Old 97. It began its runs from Washington DC to Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1902 and earned the reputation of getting the mail to its destination pronto.

On September 26, 1903, however, Old 97 was behind schedule when it left Washington DC and a full hour late when it reached Monroe, Virginia. A new train crew came aboard in Monroe as was customary and preparations were made for the run to Spencer, North Carolina. Time was of the essence. Their contract with the government included a penalty clause for each minute the mail was late. Southern Railway also operated under a corporate mandate to keep trains on schedule in order to assure the continuance of their working agreements.

A company official met with 33 year old engineer Joseph A. “Steve” Broady in Monroe, instructing him to get the train to Spencer on time, 166 miles ahead.

“Broady, the computations indicate you’ll need to increase your average speed to 51 miles per hour,” an uneasy Broady was told. “You’ll also have to maintain your speed straight through Franklin Junction. We know you usually have a stop but you mustut it out this time.

“This run averages 39 miles per hour but we have to push it up to 51 on this run. Broady, you’ve got a great track record for transporting the mail. Time isn’t waiting on us so you’ve got to roll. You’ve got to move the mail. We’re counting on you Steve. Good luck!”

Broady knew the locomotive was behind time and hurried toward the train engine. He was apprehensive about the upcoming leg to Spencer. The track contained several tight radius curves and an equal number of steep inclines. He would have to build a lot of speed on the flatter areas in the valleys in order to reach the newly imposed speeds. The problem was the Old 97 would then begin the downhill side at excessive, practically suicidal speeds. Above all else he thought of the eighteen individuals who were aboard and their wives and children at home. A lot was riding on Old 97.

“Somebody’s gotta do it,” he laughed uneasily under his breath as he climbed up into the cab, his home away from home.

“Why else do they pay me all those pictures of George Washington,” he jested.

Numerous danger points existed on the track between Monroe and Spencer. Drivers on our nation’s highways have often seen cautionary signage while driving on our secondary roads. The Monroe-Spencer rail had similar, periodic signs warning engineers to use caution on this section of rails. Can you imagine a train engineer watching for signs?

During Old 97’s trip with Broady at the helm in what some called the rocking chair he descended a deadly heavy grade at an excessive rate of speed. He certainly would have never called it being in a rocking chair seat on this perilous trip. It was fraught with danger.

He knew rounding onto the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle, near Danville, Virginia, would be a major problem. His worst fear became a reality. The entire train derailed, jumping from the tracks and plunging down into the ravine. The flames spread quickly, taking on the appearance of a hellish inferno. Most all the train cars were wooden and they were quickly consumed. Nearly every sack of mail was destroyed. The local fire department didn’t have the equipment or manpower to extinguish the flames. It would have taken wings for anyone to escape from the abyss.

The engineer (Steve Broady), the conductor , flagmen, fireman, student fireman and several mail clerks were among the men who were killed, several unrecognizably.

Although nine died nearly instantly, Angels of the Lord whisked nine other injured workers from the carnage, several hurt seriously. A large case filled with canaries burst open in the calamity allowing them to escape the flames, flying into the nearby woods.

Onlookers are shown following the wreck of the Old 97

Vice president William W. Finley, president of Southern Railroad, made a speech the following day discussing the accident. He explained many called the locomotive Old 97 although it was only a year old when the accident occurred. It was in excellent condition and was not to blame the company contended. The company placed the blame for the accident directly on engineer Steve Broady. They disavowed that he had been ordered to run the train as fast as possible, saying that Broady had Old 97 descend the grade leading to the trestle at as much as 90 miles an hour.

The accident inspired a song, ‘Wreck of the Old 97’ which has been recorded by numerous artists including Johnny Cash, Mack Wiseman, Charlie Louvin, Flatt and Scruggs, Boxcar Willie, Woody Guthrie, Hank Snow, Vernon Dalhart and others. The lyrics, romanticized in song, reads “He was goin’ down the grade makin’ 90 miles an hour when his whistle broke into a scream. He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle, a’scalded to death by the steam.”

The song, along with that of “Casey Jones” are considered by far, to being the greatest railroad songs of all time. Copyright 2018 Jadon Gibson

Editor’s note: Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can read periodically at bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting.

A Voice for God – a voice for good
My good Lord in Heaven has been so good to me. There are many nice places on earth to live but we are fortunate to have been born and raised in the United States of America, the land of the free and home of the brave.

The land of opportunity. There’s no limit to what someone can be or become if they have the dream, wish and drive. We must have high dreams, not small dreams of little consequence.

What do you want to do or become? Think of it often and picture yourself in the position you want to be. If it’s something worthwhile and you really desire it you’re on the right track. Think of the pathway you can take to accomplish your dream. If you think of it enough it will probably become a reality.
It will likely require study. Consider how you can best prepare yourself. If you are going on a trip it is important to know where you are going and how to get there. Otherwise you can end up a derelict with little hope.

Parents can help ingrain positive thoughts in their youngsters. I was fortunate to be born to working, supportive parents. I got a spanking or two (actually more) for missteps I made growing up. I learned limits and consequences. Those were important lessons that would last a lifetime.

Most importantly Mom taught us about Jesus from a young age. She made sure we were in Sunday School. We learned God’s laws. By so doing our circle of friends had higher aims in life. That will work for your children.

It is disheartening to see news accounts of people with little hope living in rubble. We are fortunate to live in a land of peace and prosperity with opportunities for our youngsters to chase their dreams. Our good Lord in Heaven has been so good to us. Thank you Lord for all you do for me!

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