Danville, VA "Wreck of the Old 97" Train Wreck, Sept 1903

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 careered 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.

The wreck of Old 97 occurred when the engineer, 33-year-old Joseph A. ("Steve") Broady, at the controls of engine number 1102, was operating the train at high speed in order to stay on schedule and arrive at Spencer on time. The Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late. Locomotive 1102, a ten-wheeler 4-6-0 engine built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, had rolled out of the factory in early 1903, less than a year before the wreck.

On the day of the accident, Old 97 was behind schedule when it left Washington, DC, and was one hour late when it arrived in Monroe, Virginia. When the train arrived in Monroe the train crew was switched, and when it left Monroe, there were 17 people on board. The train personnel included Joseph A. Broady (the engineer) dubbed "Steve" by his friends, John Blair (the conductor), A.C. Clapp (a fireman), John Hodge (a student fireman) sometimes known as Dodge in other documents, and James Robert Moody (the flagman). Also aboard were various mail clerks including J.L. Thompson, Scott Chambers, Daniel Flory, Paul Argenbright, Lewis Spies, Frank Brooks, Percival Indermauer, Charles Reams, Jennings Dunlap, Napoleon Maupin, J. H. Thompson, and W. R. Pinckney, an express messenger. When the train pulled into Lynchburg, Virginia, Wentworth Armistead, a safe locker, boarded the train, so at the time of the wreck, there were 18 men aboard.

At Monroe, Broady was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles (267 km) distant, on time. The scheduled running time from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes - an average speed of approximately 39 mph (63 km/h). In order to make up the one hour delay, the train's average speed would have to be at least 51 mph (82 km/h). Broady was ordered to maintain speed through Franklin Junction, an intermediate stop normally made during the run.

The route between Monroe and Spencer ran through rolling terrain, and there were numerous danger points due to the combination of grades and tight radius curves. Signs were posted to warn engineers to watch their speed. However, in his quest to stay on time, engineer Broady rapidly descended a heavy grade that ended at the 45-foot-high (14 m) Stillhouse Trestle, which spanned Stillhouse Branch. He was unable to sufficiently reduce speed as he approached the curve leading into the trestle, causing the entire train to derail and plunge into the ravine below. The flames that erupted afterwards consumed the splintered debris of the wooden cars, and it was very hard for the local fire department to extinguish the blaze. The investigation that followed was greatly hampered by the fire and the few witnesses to the incident.
Of the eleven men who died, nine were immediately killed, 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.

There were several survivors of the wreck who believed they stayed alive because they jumped from the train just before the fatal plunge. Among the three survivors was J. Harris Thompson of Lexington. Harris was a mail clerk who served on the Southern Railroad. (He later retired on May 1, 1941.) W. R. Pinckney, the express messenger, who also survived, went home to Charlotte, North Carolina, and immediately resigned after his life-changing experience. Two other survivors were Jennings J. Dunlap, and M.C. Maupin. They did not resign, although they started in 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.