‘The Old 97’

You may have heard of ‘The Old 97’, but what was it?

Some of you are saying, “Well, duh!  It was a famous train.”

You are absolutely right.  It was a famous train.  You always hear about those great train journeys from those great trains that made the ride so enjoyable.  Sadly, this is not one of those stories.

What was ‘The Old 97’?  It was Mail Express train operated by the Southern Railroad in the United States of America that began in Washington D.C. and went to Atlanta, Georgia that consisted of locomotive Number 1102, two postal cars, an express car, and a baggage car that had a crew of eighteen.

The day was September 27, 1903.  ‘The Old 97’ departed Washington D.C. an hour behind schedule after waiting for another train that arrived late and had mail to be put on the train to go to points south.  It was headed to Atlanta Georgia.  To make up time, the engineer speed up the train.  They arrived at Stillhouse Trestle just north of the town of Danville, Virginia.  The trestle was a bending trestle that bridged a ravine.  The train tried to slow down… but it was not enough as the train went off the trestle and plunged into the ravine.  Eleven crew members died.  Seven were severely injured.  Only one walked away from the wreck.  It is today one of the worst train wrecks in the state of Virginia.  The locomotive was repaired, and it was brought back into service, but it pulled its last train in 1935 and was scraped.

Years later, songs were written about the train, but a musician named Vernon Dalhart wrote his version of the wreck.  What he do?  Well, let us say that it was the first country song in American record history to sell one million copies.

If you visit the site of the wreck in Danville, Virginia today, the only thing you will see is a sign near the spot of the wreckage.  The trestle no longer stands.

‘The Old 97’ is not just a song, but it is a song that remembers those who lost their lives serving people.  Let us not forget those on ‘The Old 97’.

The words of the song:

THE WRECK OF THE OLD 97

On one cloudless morning long I stood on the mountain

Just watching the smoke from below,

It was coming from a tall, slim smokestack

Way down the Southern Railroad

It was 97, the fastest train

Ever ran the Southern line

All the freight trains and passengers take the side for 97

For she’s bound to be at the stations on time

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia

Saying, “Stevie, you’re way behind time.

This is not 38, but it’s Old 97

You must put her into Spencer on time.”

He looked ‘round and said to his black greasy fireman,

“Just shovel in a little more coal,

And when I cross that old White Oak Mountain

You can just watch Old 97 roll.”

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,

And the lie was a three-mile grade

It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,

And you see what a jump that she made.

He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,

When his whistle began to scream,

He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,

He was scalded to death by the steam.

Did she ever pull in? No, she never pulled in,

And at 1:45 he was due,

For hours and hours has the switchman been waiting

For that fast mail that never pulled through.

Did she ever pull in? No, she never pulled in,

And that poor boy must be dead

Oh, yonder he lays on the railroad track

With the cart of his wheels over his head.

97, she was the fastest train

That the South had ever seen,

But she run so fast on that Sunday morning

That the death score was numbered 14.

Now, ladies, you must take warning,

From this time now and on,

Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband.

He may leave you and never return.

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