Wreck of the Old 97

The Wreck of the Old 97 was an American rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train, officially known as the Fast Mail, while en route from Monroe, Virginia, to Spencer, North Carolina, on September 27, 1903. Due to excessive speed in an attempt to maintain schedule, the train derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia, where it careened off the side of the bridge, killing eleven on-board personnel and injuring seven others. The wreck inspired a famous railroad ballad, which was the focus of a convoluted copyright lawsuit but became seminal in the genre of country music. and seven were injured. Among the deceased were the conductor Blair, engineer Broady and flagman Moody. The bodies of both firemen were recovered, but they were mangled so badly they were unrecognizable.

Several survivors of the wreck believed they stayed alive because they jumped from the train just before the fatal plunge. Among the three survivors was mail clerks Thompson and Harris. Pinckney, the express messenger, also survived the wreck, went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and immediately resigned after his life-changing experience. Two other survivors, Jennings J. Dunlap and M.C. Maupin, did not resign, although they transferred to new departments. Dunlap went to work on a train that ran between Washington and Charlotte, while Maupin worked at the Charlotte union station.

Only a fraction of the mail had survived, including a large case filled with canaries that managed to escape and fly to safety. Engine 1102 was recovered, repaired, and it went on to perform further duties until it was dismantled in July 1935.

The day after the wreck, vice-president Finley made a speech in which he said: "The train consisted of two postal cars, one express and one baggage car for the storage of mail.... Eyewitnesses said the train was approaching the trestle at speeds of 30 to 35 miles an hour." The Southern Railway placed blame for the wreck on Broady, disavowing that he had been ordered to run as fast as possible to maintain the schedule. The railroad also claimed he descended the grade leading to the trestle at a speed of more than 70 mph. Several eyewitnesses to the wreck, however, stated that the speed was probably around 50 mph. In all likelihood, the railroad was at least partially to blame, as it had a lucrative contract with the U.S. Post Office to haul mail, and the contract included a penalty clause for each minute the train was late into Spencer. It is probably safe to conclude that the engineers piloting the Fast Mail were always under pressure to stay on time so that the railroad would not be penalized for late mail delivery.

Fast Mail was in another fatal accident earlier in the year of 1903. On Monday, April 13, the train left Washington at 8:00 a.m., en route to New Orleans. As the train approached Lexington, North Carolina, it collided with a boulder on the track, causing the train to derail and ditch, killing the engineer and fireman. The locomotive that was pulling the train is unknown. Southern #1102 had yet to be delivered to the railroad at that time.


The disaster served as inspiration for songwriters, 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 (Victor Record no. 19427), sometimes cited as the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry, with Frank Ferera playing guitar and Dalhart playing harmonica. Since then, "Wreck of the Old 97" has been recorded by numerous artists, including Dalhart himself in 1924 under the name Sid Turner on Perfect 12147, The Statler Brothers (feat. Johnny Cash), Charlie Louvin of The Louvin Brothers, Pink Anderson, Lowgold, David Holt, Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Chuck Ragan, Hank Williams III, Patrick Sky, Nine Pound Hammer, Roy Acuff, Boxcar Willie, Lonnie Donegan, The Seekers, Ernest Stoneman & Kahle Brewer, Carolyn Hester, Bert Southwood, Hank Thompson and John Mellencamp. The music was often accompanied by a banjo and a fiddle, while the lyrics were either sung, crooned, yodeled, whistled, hummed, recited, or chanted. The song rivaled that of "Casey Jones" for being the number one railroading song of all time.

The ballad was sung to the tune of "The Ship That Never Returned", written by Henry Clay Work in 1865. Originally, the lyrics were attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey and co-author Charles Weston Noell. Lewey claimed to have written the song the day after the accident, in which his cousin Albion Clapp was one of the two firemen killed. 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.

In 1927 it was claimed that the author of "Wreck of the Old 97" was local resident David Graves George, who was one of the first on the scene. George was a brakeman and telegraph operator who also happened to be a singer. Witnessing the tragedy inspired him to write the ballad. After the 1924 recording by the Victor Talking Machine Company was released, George filed a claim for ownership. On March 11, 1933, Judge John Boyd proclaimed that George was the author of the ballad. Victor Talking Machine Company was forced to pay David $65,000 of the profits from about five million records sold. Victor appealed three times. The first two times, the courts ruled in favor of George. The third time the court of appeals ruled in favor of Victor Talking Machines. George appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, but the court ruled that George had filed his appeal too late and dismissed it, thereby granting Victor ownership of the ballad.

"Wreck of the Old 97" is 777 in the Roud Folk Song Index.

The ballad clearly places the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broady to exceed a safe speed limit, for the lyric (on the Dalhart recording) begins, "Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, 'Steve, you're way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.'"

Popular culture

In Scarface, Ann Dvorak sings the song while playing it on the piano.

During the late 1940s, a parody of the ballad was sung that mocked the ties that the folk singer Pete Seeger had to the Communist Party. The lyrics began, "Well they gave him his orders up at Party headquarters, saying, 'Pete, you're way behind the times; this is not '38, it is 1947, there's been a change in that old Party line.'"

An episode of the Suspense radio program, broadcast on March 17, 1952, and starring Frank Lovejoy, was loosely based on the ballad, which appears in snatches throughout the play. The facts of the wreck are changed, however, eliminating all but one fireman, all but one mail car clerk, and adding two escaped killers.

The ballad was referenced in the song "Blood on the Coal", a folk parody song from A Mighty Wind, the mockumentary film from Christopher Guest. The reference seems to be a tribute to the ballad, although the wreck described in "Blood on the Coal" is an absurd one in which the train crashes into a coal mine.

In the movie The Blues Brothers, the band is handed a list of songs to play at a gig. While the band is cleaning up Elwood says, "Sorry we couldn't remember 'The Wreck of the Old 97'."

A version of the song, by Ramblin' Jack Elliott, is part of the ambient soundtrack to the video game Sid Meier's Railroads!

The popular alt-country band Old 97's take their name from the ballad.

The title track from Opal's "Northern Line" EP (1985) alludes, "I'm hummin' on a cold train; I'm singin' 'bout the Wreck of the Old 97". A cover by Old 97's was released on the expanded edition of their 1997 album Too Far to Care.

In Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Starlight Express, the main villain (a murderous brake van) claims he's responsible for multiple historical train crashes, including the Old 97.

In the Shining Time Station episode "Happy Accidents", the Jukebox Band performs this song. Tex and Rex play the banjo together.

Kingsley Amis quotes from the ballad in his novel Lucky Jim (1954 chapter 5).

In The Andy Griffith Show episode "Crime-Free Mayberry", Andy offers to sing "The Wreck of the Ole 97" but Barney calls it a dippy song so Andy doesn't play it. Note: Fred Lewey was a cousin of the Fireman Albion Clapp on the Old 97. Actually, Fred was working in a cotton mill right next to the foot of the trestle jumped by the train, and was one of those who helped dig out the bodies of the crew, fully aware that Albion was to be one of them. Fred went home, and started writing the song the next day.