‘What a jump he made’—Danville, Virginia

Old 97 Wreck Site
Riverside Drive (US 58 BUS) between Farrar Street and Highland Court
Danville, Virginia

They give 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 we cross that White Oak Mountain,
You can watch Old 97 roll.”

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And a line on a three-mile grade.
It was on this grade that he lost his air brakes;
You can see what a jump he 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 the throttle,
And was scalded to death by the steam.

And then a telegram come to Washington station,
This is what it read,
“Oh, that brave engineer that run 97,
“He’s a lyin’ in old Danville dead.”

Oh, now all you ladies better take a warning,
From this time on and learn.
Never speak harsh to your true-loving husband,
He may leave you and never return.

–“The Wreck of Old 97,” by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter

This old, Appalachian ballad obscures the true horror of the events of September 27, 1903 behind a jaunty, cheerful tune and lyrics that hardly echo the true tragedy that occurred in this ravine next to the Dan River. Indeed, the song’s lyrics do not accurately describe the accident.

On that warm Sunday Southern Railway’s Fast Mail, or “Old 97,” as it was affectionately dubbed, met with several delays leaving Washington, D.C. on its journey south to Atlanta. This did not bode well for the Southern Railway’s reputation or its bottom line. The Fast Mail was generally known for running on time, in fact many residents along the route set their watches by the train’s regular schedule; plus, the company would face steep fines from the U. S. Postal Service for delivering the mail late.

The delays in leaving Washington caused the train to pull into its scheduled stop in Monroe, Virginia nearly an hour late. At this stop the train changed engines and crews. Engine No. 1102, which had been delivered to the railroad just a month previous, was quickly coupled with the rest of the short mail train consisting of a tender (loaded with coal to fuel the engine), two postal cars, an express car, and a baggage car at the end. In the postal cars mail sorters collected the bags of mail along the route and sorted it to insure it reached the proper destination. The express car carried freight including a crate of live canaries on this particular trip; while the baggage car carried additional mail that had been previously sorted, and the train’s safe.

locomotive drawings for engine no. 1102
Technical drawing for Engine No. 1102 that pulled Old 97 on that fateful day in 1903.

At Monroe, Joseph Andrew Broady, known by his nickname, “Steve,” was put in charge as engineer. Responsible for overseeing the actual operation of the locomotive he set the speed and operated the brakes when necessary. Steve Broady had been hired by the railway only recently. Despite his greenness to the company, he was an experienced engineer, though there is some contention as to why he was put in charge of the Old 97 train that day. Broady was experienced on this particular route and knew the dangers that he would encounter, especially on the Stillhouse Trestle that led into downtown Danville, but up to this day, he had only handled heavier freight trains which handled much differently from the light mail train he was running on this day.

Despite the opening lyrics of the song, in which Broady is ordered to pull the train into Spencer, North Carolina on time, he was given orders in Monroe to do the opposite. The orders noted that the train was going to run late and that he was not to make up for the lost time.

Broady was joined by fireman Albion C. “Buddy” Clapp and a student fireman, John Madison Hodge, who would feed coal into the engine when necessary. As a result of their hard work, these men would often be covered in soot and grease from the coal, thus the descriptive line in the song, “his black, greasy fireman.” With Broady maintaining the operation of the engine, the train’s conductor would oversee the operation of the train as a whole, and this task was given over to John Thomas Blair. Broady’s crew was completed by the addition of a flagman, James Robert Moody, who rode in the final car and would signal to oncoming trains if the train stalled on the track.

To handle the mail, eleven postal workers were on board. They were Jennings Dunlap, Percival Indermauer, John H. Thompson, Paul M. Argenbright, W. Scott Chambers, Daniel P. Flory, Napoleon C. Maupin, Frank E. Brooks, Charles E. Reames, Louis Spies, John L. Thompson, and in addition to express messenger W. R. Pinckney. The train pulled out of the station at Monroe before safe locker Wentworth Armistead could get off. He was in charge of securing the trains’ safes and remained at the station to ensure that the train’s safes could not be opened and robbed en route. The addition of the safe locker brought the number of souls aboard the train to eighteen.

What may have transpired in the cab of Old 97 as it traversed the rolling landscape south towards Danville is unknown. In the intervening years since the accident, much blame has been heaped on Steve Broady, with many (including the song) describing him as reckless and negligible. Historian Larry Aaron seems to think that this estimation is incorrect, and that he was well respected by his peers and that the blame for the incident may be due to his inexperience at handling such a train rather than his carelessness.

1895 Southern Railway map
Closeup of the route of Old 97 on an 1895 Southern Railway map. The train travelled the line between Washington to Spencer, North Carolina, located a short distance north from the Salisbury stop on this map.

The railroad’s southern route into Danville was precarious as the train would have to navigate the Stillhouse Trestle over Stillhouse Creek just before crossing the Dan River. On the approach to the trestle, the train descended a grade of about three miles and could build up a decent amount of momentum. At the side of grade was a sign warning the engineer to slow down and the railway’s rules (which Broady had been tested on) required the engineer to slow the train’s speed on trestles and bridges. The trestle immediately curved to the left, bringing the train parallel with the river and the mill complex that occupied the river’s north bank. After following the river for a short distance, the train would then cross a bridge over the river and directly into downtown Danville.

Dnaville Virginia Amtrak Station
The Danville Station as seen in 2012. This station would have been the next stop on Old 97’s journey on Sept. 27, 1903, but it crashed before it arrived. Photo by See This, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Even before the train entered North Danville, residents near the track noted the train sped by unusually fast.

One local resident, E. H. Chappell, later described his experience years later saying that he had gone out to his well for a drink of water.

It was a roaring sound and while I couldn’t see the track from where I stood because it ran through a deep fill at that point, I saw a great pillar of billowing dust, moving very fast. It was the train, of course, and she was making a weird, unusual noise. I remember I turned to my mother, who was with me, and said, “She’ll never make the trestle.”

A later author described the piercing scream of the train’s whistle as she roared towards the Stillhouse Trestle.

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. People turned in their yards, ran out on their porches, stopped still along the streets in North Danville. All eyes turned in the direction of the approaching train. With bated breath and anxious hearts, they waited.

Sanborn fire insurance map 1899
This 1899 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Danville shows the curve of the Stillhouse Trestle just north of the Riverside Cotton Mill. This is the curve where the accident occurred.

Of what happened next, one eyewitness simply said, “It just split the curve.” Steve Broady likely realized that the train was moving far too fast to make the curve and desperately tried to apply the brakes and put the engine into reverse. But, it was all too late. The engine jumped the curve bringing all four cars with it as it arced through the air and into the ravine 75 feet below. The engine landed first digging into the ground and the cars splintering on top. The final car rolled onto its side though it remained mostly intact. In a heartbeat, ten lives were snuffed out while all the others were injured, some critically. Within days, one of the injured men passed away bringing the casualties to eleven.

Locals, having heard the tremendous crash, began to rush to the scene. The alarm bell of the mill next to the trestle was sounded and church bells began to ring. Crowds, many dressed in their Sunday best, were greeted by broken and twisted wood and metal piled in the ravine with smoke and steam filtering out from the buried engine. Victims, their bodies mangled and some even scalded by the steam, lay entwined with the wreckage, with the living crying out for aid. The canaries that had been confined to a crate in the express car were flitting about the wreckage lending bright pops of yellow to the surreal scene.

Wreck of Old 97
Locals, still in Sunday clothes, look at the train wreck. Photo courtesy of the Encyclopedia Virginia.

A rescue effort was soon underway as locals began to sift through the wreck searching for the living the dead. Steve Broady was found near the creek at the bottom of the ravine, rather than still in the engine as the song describes. One of his rescuers reported that:

The skin came off his arm just like a chicken that’s scalded. Somebody came from the houses above, and two or three men helped me pick up the engineer and put him on the bank. He drawed two or three breaths and that was the end of him.

Historian Larry Aaron notes that:

The sights and sounds on that Sunday afternoon destroyed not only the train but also whatever charm the day would have held. The crashing sound and shaking ground; the dust, debris, smoke and fire; the mournful cries of wounded and dying men; the sheet-covered bodies on mattresses; the wagons hauling the wounded to the Home for the Sick; the proud locomotive steeped in mud; and the postal cars shredded like paper—all created a surreal scene. For a host of onlookers, that serene Sunday afternoon became a nightmare to remember.

As darkness fell in Danville, “flares and lanterns hung on trees and poles” lent their light to the tragic scene as well as the harsh light of an engine that was parked on the trestle. Within hours of the disaster crews began to repair the trestle, completing their work in time for a train to pass the next morning. The engine was pulled from the dirt and set upright. After major repairs, it was returned to service.

Wreck of the Old 97 Danville Virginia
The wreck of the Old 97 in 1903. This photo was taken shortly after the engine was pulled into an upright position.

The memories of that horrible day have lingered in Danville for more than a century. The song “Wreck of Old 97” came into existence some years after the tragedy along with questions over its authorship. Musicians continue to cover the jaunty song, repeating the sad story of Old 97’s tragic jump.

In the decades that have passed since the accident the trestle has been torn down and the mill next to it was destroyed by fire recently. Riverside Drive, which carries US 58 BUS, now runs parallel with the Dan River and speeds right by the overgrown ravine where the wreck occurred. US 58, along with US 29, is one of the two major US highways serving modern Danville. In 1947, a historical marker was placed next to the busy road describing the crash as “one of the worst train wrecks in Virginia history.” It also incorrectly reports the death toll as nine.

Perhaps echoes of the wreck continue to be experienced today? A short time after the horrid events, locals began to report that lights were seen in the ravine, moving like the lanterns brought out by rescuers as darkness fell. Even as the spot became treacherous and overgrown, the lights continued to appear. Some reported to still hear the shriek of the train’s whistle on the disaster’s anniversary without a train nearby.

In his Ghosthunting Virginia, author Michael Varhola describes a trip to Danville to check out the site. As he spoke with several locals, he was met with no reports of activity at the site nowadays. Perhaps the echoes of that tragic day have begun, like memories, to fade into the mist of time?

In total,  eleven men who lost their lives in the wreck and they were: Joseph Andrew “Steve” Broady, John Thomas Blair, James Robert Moody, Albion C. “Buddy” Clapp, John Madison Hodge, John L. Thompson, Paul M. Argenbright, W. Scott Chambers, Daniel P. Flory, Louis Spies, and Wentworth Armistead.

Sources

  • Aaron, Larry G. The Wreck of the Old 97. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010.
  • Taylor, L. B., Jr. The Ghosts of Virginia, Vol. II. B. Taylor, Jr.: 1994.
  • Varhola, Michael J. Ghosthunting Virginia. Cincinnati, OH: Clerisy Press, 2008.
  • The Wreck of Old 97. The Historical Marker Database (HMdb.org). Added 25 August 2021.
  • Wreck of the Old 97.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 9 July 2022.