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It was the original "transportation disaster as mass-media event." On September 27, 1903, in Danville, Virginia the southbound mail express of the Southern Railroad. Locomotive #1102, known as "Old 97" and the fastest engine on the line, was running behind schedule on the "fast mail" delivery down to Atlanta, Georgia. The locomotive ran on an exacting schedule, so that the switchmen down the line could move freight and passenger trains out of the way. Old 97 was priority override, it was FedEx.

In Monroe, Virginia, Engineer Joseph Broady was tasked to the train at the last minute, with orders from the central office to get the train into Spencer, Georgia on time. He was a senior engineer, with some twenty years of service with the railroad. He was a man known for his ability to run the train with power and speed, and for his knowledge of the "road", the track.

Between Lynchburg, Virginia (home of asshole Jerry Falwell) and Danville, Virginia ("Last Capitol of the Conferderacy") are the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It's rugged country, with many small, clustered hills and grades. As the song goes, once Broady got the engine over "White Oak Mountain", he could really open her up and make up for lost time. Just outside Danville, there is a three-mile grade that descends into the Dan River valley. The train picked up speed, some say reaching as high a ninety miles-an-hour, and then the airbrakes failed. The train was approaching the 500 foot long trestle that spanned the river, some 75 feet above the water. The engineer reversed the the engine, locking the wheels against the track. The flange on the engine wheel (prime mover) shattered and the train jumped the track, pulling four mail cars and an express car with it, smashing through the trestle on it's way down into the river.

Nine people were killed and seven injured. The track was offline because of the damage to the railbed and the trestle. The story of man and machine racing the clock captured the popular imagination. Henry Whittler wrote a ballad, which was later recorded and popularized by Hank Snow. It's become something of a bluegrass standard. It was also the subject of a stunning painting by American Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Benton had never been to Danville, but the kineticism of the painting captures what the public found engaging about the story.

A mythology developed around the wreck. The engineer had been spurned by the cruel words of his love. The engineer fell victim to the hubris of being in control of such a powerful machine. The engineer was obsessed with the clock. You've got to remember, this is 1903 - controling a massive metal machine was unusual. We weren't yet a nation of mad locomotive engineers. We weren't all enslaved by the colonization of time.

It's a hell of a song. Almost nobody performs all 11 verses.

----------------

 
 ON ONE CLOUDLESS MORNING, I STOOD ON THE MOUNTAIN,
 JUST WATCHING THE SMOKE FROM BELOW.
 IT WAS COMING FROM A TALL, SLIM SMOKE STACK
 WAY DOWN ON THE SOUTHERN RAILROAD.
 
 
 IT WAS NINETY-SEVEN, THE FASTEST TRAIN
 THAT EVER RAN THE SOUTHERN LINE.
 THE FREIGHT TRAINS AND RIDERS TAKE THE SIDE FOR 97,
 FOR SHE'S BOUND TO BE AT STATIONS ON TIME.
 
 
 THEY GAVE HIM HIS ORDERS AT MONROE, VIRGINIA,
 SAYING, "STEVE, 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 LINE 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 THE WHISTLE BROKE INTO A SCREAM.
 HE WAS FOUND IN THE WRECK WITH HIS HAND ON THAT 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.
 
 
 THEN A TELEGRAM CAME TO WASHINGTON STATION,
 AND THIS IS HOW IT READ,
 "OH THAT BRAVE ENGINEER THAT RUN OLD 97,
 HE'S A LYIN' IN OLD DANVILLE DEAD."
 
 
 DID SHE EVER PULL IN?  NO, SHE NEVER PULLED IN,
 AND THAT POOR BOY MUST BE DEAD.
 OH, YONDER HE LIES ON THE RAILROAD TRACK
 WITH THE CART WHEELS OVER HIS HEAD.
 
 
 NINETY-SEVEN, SHE WAS THE FASTEST TRAIN
 THAT THE SOUTH HAD EVER SEEN.
 BUT SHE RAN SO FAST ON THAT SUNDAY MORNING,
 THE DEATH SCORE WAS NUMBERED FOURTEEN.
 
 
 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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