The Wreck of the Old 97

The Wreck of the Old 97 is a classic of country music. I grew up with the version by The Seekers in this video:

The lyrics for that version are the ones often sung, but are somewhat corrupt. The event, as it actually took place, is described in Larry G. Aaron’s excellent 2010 book The Wreck of the Old 97, and this tragedy of steam technology is better served by the lyrics below:

Well they gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
Sayin’ Steve you’re way behind time
This is not 38, it’s old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time

Then he turned around and said to his black greasy fireman
Shovel on a little more coal
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain
Watch old 97 roll

The song tells the story of a Southern Railway mail train, running from Washington, D.C. to Atlanta, Georgia. The annual mail contract was worth about $3,500,000 in today’s money, but there were stiff penalties for each minute the train was late. On Sunday 27 September 1903, engineer Joseph A. (“Steve”) Broady took over a train (number 97) at Monroe with an almost new ten-wheeler locomotive (number 1102). But it was a train running an hour late, and Broady was under pressure to make up time by exceeding the already fast normal running speed.

But it’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
And from Lima it’s on a three mile grade
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes
See what a jump he made

Broady roared through several small stations without slowing. Mail clerks threw mail bags from the train, but the train was travelling too fast to pick up southbound mail from the trackside suspension pouches. At the small freight depot of Lima (just on the Danville city limits as at 2010), the train was en route to what was essentially a death trap. Three miles of track, with an average downhill grade of about 1.6%, led to a sharp turn over the Stillhouse Trestle bridge (located here). It is not known whether Broady’s brakes failed, but he did not or could not apply them during the downhill run. Just before the turn, witnesses saw sparks as he threw the engine into reverse, in a desperate attempt to lose momentum.

He was goin’ down the grade makin’ 90 miles an hour
When his whistle broke into a scream
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
A-scalded to death by the steam

Ninety miles an hour is perhaps an exaggeration – 60 is more consistent with witness reports. The scream, however, is attested to by Danville reporter Pat Fox: “The whistle… gave a series of blasts on the approach to Lima and finally set up a constant broken wailing down the three-mile grade to the Dan Valley. It was the death cry of a runaway locomotive and it chilled the hearts of all who heard it.

In his book on the wreck, Aaron writes: “Regardless, what we do know is that once the speeding train left the trestle and sailed into space, the laws of physics regarding momentum and centrifugal force came into play. Ultimately, gravity put it on the ground. Sunday, September 27, 1903, was a big day for Isaac Newton’s laws of motion but a bad day for Old 97 and its crew.

The train was travelling at a speed of at least 60 miles an hour (27 metres per second). The safe speed around the corner was officially 15 miles an hour – at most 25. The locomotive and tender weighed 274,360 pounds (124,450 kg), plus the four (mostly wooden) cars. That’s over 45 MJ of kinetic energy (by my calculation) and 3.3 Meganewton-seconds of momentum which Broady could not easily shed. The radius of the curve at Danville was (by my estimate) around 150 metres, giving a centrifugal acceleration of about 0.5 G – enough to derail the train.

Then the telegram come to Washington station
And this is how it read
Oh that brave engineer that run old 97
He’s a layin’ in old Danville dead

So now all you ladies you better take a warnin’
From this time on and learn
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin’ husband
He may leave you and never return

Both the song and the above photograph (taken the day after the crash) omit one bizarre detail: hundreds of bright yellow birds flying over the wreckage, chirping merrily. The train had been carrying several crates of canaries, intended for use as living poison-gas detectors in the Southern coal mines. They escaped that fate, at least.


1 thought on “The Wreck of the Old 97

  1. Pingback: The Top 6 | Scientific Gems

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