Scalded to Death by the Steam: The Wreck of the Old 97

Image from Encyclopedia Virginia.On September 27, 1903, arguably the most famous train wreck in U.S. history, the wreck of the old 97, occurred in Danville, Va. The mail train was in route to Spencer in Rowan County.

Late leaving and under company orders to get back on schedule, engineer Joseph A., “Steve” Broady had the steam engine rolling at about 90 miles an hour, way too fast for safety.

Nine people of the 18 railroad and post office employees on board, including Broady, were killed immediately when the train left the Stillhouse Trestle and crashed into a ravine. Three others died later of their injuries and the other seven were injured but survived.

Three survivors, all North Carolinians, believed they survived because they jumped from the train. Spencer was 166 miles away from Monroe, Va., the trip’s origin, and the route usually took more than 4 hours to make. The usual, and safe, speed was about 39 miles an hour.

Shortly after the tragic wreck a ballad, “The Wreck of the Old 97” became popular and has remained a mainstay of bluegrass artists. Various people, most with a close connection to one of the dead from the wreck, have claimed authorship of the song.

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