Ear Candy Update Musicology Vol. 2 - Wreck of the Old 97

This edition of Ear Candy Update Musicology is about the legendary train wreck at the heart of a classic song.

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Wreck of the Old 97.mp3


Old 97 was a Southern Railway train officially known as the Fast Mail which ran from DC to Hot 'Lanta. On September 27, 1903 while en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina, the train derailed at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia. The wreck inspired a famous railroad ballad, which was the focus of a convoluted copyright lawsuit but became legendary in the country music world.

The wreck of Old 97 occurred when the engineer, a 33 year old Joseph A. ("Steve") Broady, was operating the train at high speed in order to stay on schedule and arrive at Spencer on time. You see Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late. Old 97 was behind schedule when it left DC and was one hour late when it arrived in Monroe, Virginia. When the train pulled into Lynchburg, Virginia there were 18 men aboard. Eleven of them died and seven were injured.

At Monroe, Broady's bosses instructed him to get the Fast Mail to Spencer. The normal running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes at 39 mph. The train's would have to average 51. Broady's plan was to maintain speed through Franklin Junction, an intermediate stop normally made during the run. This is literally a train, speed, time algerbra equation. Dammit!

The route between Monroe and Spencer was rolling terrain packed with danger from a combination of grades and tight curves. Posted signs warned engineers to watch their speed. However, in his quest to stay on time, Broady rapidly descended the heavy grade that ended at the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle, which spanned Stillhouse Branch. He couldn't reduce speed as he approached the curve leading into the trestle. The entire train derailed and plunged into the ravine below.

The wreck of the Old 97 served as inspiration for balladeers, the most famous being the ballad first recorded commercially by Virginia musicians G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Vernon Dalhart's version was released in 1924 and is sometimes cited as the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry. Since then, "Wreck of the Old 97" has been recorded by numerous artists, including The Statler Brothers (feat. Johnny Cash), Charlie Louvin of The Louvin Brothers, Pink Anderson, David Holt, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Chuck Ragan, Hank Williams III, Patrick Sky, Nine Pound Hammer, Boxcar Willie, Lonnie Donegan, The Seekers, Bert Southwood, Ernest Stoneman & Kahle Brewer, Carolyn Hester and Hank Snow, as well as Portland, Maine Celtic punk band The Pubcrawlers.

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