The Wreck of the Old 97 by Thomas Hart Benton.
Ken Burns’ epic six part documentary Country Music over the last two weeks was a god damn religious experience for
me. Except for a couple of brief periods
I was never a guy whose ear was glued to country
radio and bought over the decades maybe a couple of dozen flat-out country records.
But I realized, sometimes through tears, that the music from the beginning
to the end was in my bones and soul.
of it I came to from just growing up in Cheyenne
listening to the acts that came in for Frontier
Days like Roy Acuff, Red Foley, Patsy Montana, and the Sons
of the Pioneers and taking in the old two
reel westerns on TV. We sang traditional Appalachian ballads and folk
song in grade school out of Carl Sandburg’s American Song Book.
of it I absorbed as folk music fan. I came to a lot of it sideways from cross-over radio hits, to cross fertilization with icons like Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, The Byrds,
and Emmy Lou Harris. I actually got to see Jethro Burns, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson,
and Vassar Clemens at Chicago folk clubs. Porter Wagoner introduced me to Dolly Parsons while I was sitting in Sandstone prison for my draft rap. TV also brought the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, Barbara
Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters,
Austin City Limits, and above
all the Johnny Cash Show—my god Johnny Cash!
all touched me—The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry and the other singing
cowboys, Roy Acuff, Bob Wills and
the Texas Playboys, Bill Monroe and
the Bluegrass Boys, of course Hank
Williams, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn,
Johnny Cash, George Jones, Tammy
Wynette, Willie Nelson, Merle
Haggard, Dolly Parton, the Outlaws, Kris
Kristofferson, Guy Clark, Graham Parsons, Emmy Lou Harris,
Towns Van Zandt, Rosanne Cash, my
daughters’ beloved Garth Brooks, down
to contemporary artists just flashed by including The Dixie Chicks, Alison
Krauss, and even—some of my readers will want to shoot me for this—Taylor Swift.
even Ken Burns had to leave something out with barely a passing mention—before the Carter Family or Jimmy Rogers there was
an unlikely singer recording major hits in
what indisputably belongs in the country music pantheon.
seems to be something about a train
wreck that inspires a song. Just about everybody knows Casey
Jones. Just two years after the disaster that inspired that tune, the Southern Railroad express known as the Fast
Mail came barreling down a steep grade at a high rate of speed and overshot
a tight radius turn right before a trestle sending the engine and train to a spectacular fiery
crash at the bottom of a steep ravine.
24 hours a witness/rescuer at the
scene had penned a ballad set to the
melody of a popular fiddle tune, The Ship That Never Returned, the same tune used latter for Charley
on the MTA. Just who that person
was later became a matter of great
controversy and an epic lawsuit.
Fast Mail, designated as No.
97, ran on contract with the
Post Office for service from Washington, DC to New Orleans via Atlanta.
That made it one of the highest
volume mail trains in the South. To encourage on time performance the contract included penalties for each minute the train arrived behind schedule at several stops along the route, including
Spencer, North Carolina. Railroad officials regularly pressured train crews to make up lost time to avoid the penalties. As a result engineers often operated trains well above designated speeds.
need for speed had contributed to a fatal
accident in April of 1903 when the engine smashed into a boulder on the tracks near Lexington, North Carolina derailing the train and
killing the engineer and Fireman.
Engine #1102 pulled the Fast Mail designated as No. 97.
September 27 that same year a brand new Baldwin
ten wheel 6-5-0 engine, #1102 which
had been delivered just a week earlier was hooked up to No. 97. For some reason, the
train was already running behind
schedule when it left Washington. It
rolled into Monroe, Virginia, a division point where train crews were
changed, a full hour late. The new
engineer, 33 year old Joseph A. Broady,
known to his friends and crew as Steve
Broady, was handed orders to make up the time before the next Post Office
penalty point at Spencer. He was told to skip one regular junction
stop entirely. Although not explicitly ordered to go over the
average 35 miles per hour limit between Monroe and Spencer, his bosses knew
that he would have to exceed that.
Broady the crew included Fireman A.C.
Clapp, and apprentice Fireman John Hodge, Conductor John Blair, and Flagman
James Robert Moody. Also on board
were Express Messenger W. R. Pinckney and
11 mail clerks. Safe Locker Wentworth Armistead boarded the
train at Lynchburg, Virginia making
a total of 18 men on board.
Mail clerks, express messenger and Armistead were all in the Post Office car attached directly
behind the tender and ahead of the freight cars.
scheduled running time for the 166 miles from Monroe to Spencer was four hours,
fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 mph. To make up the one hour delay, Broady would
have to run at an average 51 mph over track known for its steep grades and tight
curves. Witnesses thought he was
running at least 55 mph on the downgrade
headed into the 45-foot high Stillhouse
Trestle. Broady applied his brakes but could not reduce his speed enough to make
the sharp curve leading to the
The wreckage of the No. 97 at the base of the Stillhouse Trestle.
engine sailed off the track smashing to the bottom of the gorge next to the trestle. Fire quickly spread and burned out of control completely consuming all of the wooden
cars and almost all of the mail. A crate of live canaries broke open in the crash and the birds escaped before the fire consumed the
car. Many lingered in the area and became an odd reminder of the crash.
men died in the crash, including all of the train crew. The two Firemen were burned beyond recognition and it was impossible to determine which
body was whose. Most of the 7 survivors were injured but survived because
they jumped from or were thrown from the wreck. The distraught
express messenger went home and immediately resigned. Some of the surviving mail clerks did return to
service, though none again on the Fast
#1102 was salvaged, repaired, and put back in service. It ran for 32 more years before the Southern scraped it in 1935.
railroad, of course, placed all of the
blame on the engineer, and even issued a report exaggerating his speed. They
never acknowledged any culpability
for issuing the orders that made speeding inevitable.
Fast Mail continued to run until 1907 when service was canceled in a re-alignment of
the many local residents who flocked
to the scene of the accident to assist in rescue efforts was Fred Jackson Lewey who worked at a cotton mill near the base of the
trestle and who was the cousin of
Fireman Clapp. He said he sat down and
wrote lyrics the day after the wreck.
His friend Charles Noell contributed
to the words and suggested the tune. The
Wreck of the Old 97 was widely
played in the area and became a standard
at barn dances across the South
in the next 20 years.
first recording was made for Victor talking Machine Co. by the nearly blind primitive fiddle player G.B. Grayson and his partner Henry Whitter who played guitar, harmonica, and sang. Whitter also altered the lyrics.
The label of Dahlarts' Victor recording.
long after that in 1924 Vernon Dalhart
that sold more than seven million copies
and his version became the bestselling non-holiday recording of the first
70 years of the industry. It is the record that is usually cited for the birth of
successful commercial country music.
was born in 1883 and grew up on a Texas
ranch where he cowboyed as a
young man. But he was trained as a classical singer at the Dallas
Conservatory of Music. After moving
with his family to New York City and
after performing in light opera like
Pinafore he was signed as a
recording artist by Thomas Alva Edison. From 1916 until 1923, he made over 400
recordings of light classical music and early dance band vocals for various
record labels. Eventually he sang on
more than 5000 78 rpm singles for
many labels, employing more than 100 pseudonyms.
Vernon Dalhart was one of the first, and most prolific, early recording artists. He came to hillbilly music two decades into a career as light classical and popular dance music singer.
his by-chance recording of The Wreck of the Old ’97 for Victor using his own Texas accent which he admitted sounded “like
a Negro” was an astonishing hit. The record was the first Southern or hillbilly record
to achieve national success. Naturally Dalhart found more such songs to
Victor was eager to expand a new found market and
the success of the record led directly to the famous Bristol, Tennessee sessions in 1927 which first recorded the Carter
Family and Jimmie Rodgers. The rest is
like that often brings people out of the
woodwork claiming a piece of the pie.
In David G. George, 1927 a former
brakeman, railroad telegrapher, and week-end musician claimed that he was on the scene for the rescue efforts and
penned the original lyrics himself. He
sued Victor and won a judgment for past royalties from Victor $65,295. The company appealed three times, losing each time until the case got to the Supreme Court, which overturned the judgment.
experts are divided between the conflicting claims but most side with Lewey
song has become a staple of country
music, bluegrass, and the folk revival. It has been covered scores, maybe hundreds of time by artists as diverse as Jimmie
Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger,
Flatt and Scruggs, Charlie Louvin, The Seekers, Carolyn Hester, Hank
Snow, Box Car Willie, Johnny Cash,
Patrick Sky, and Nine Pound Hammer.