When I was a union steward, and slaving away for the Postal Service, one of our biggest concerns was safety. Postal management harassed the hell out of us letter carriers, trying to get us to deliver mail like we were equipped with rocket ships on roller skates. It was a serious issue, and still is. Letter carriers have died trying to keep managers off their backs.
But our job was not nearly as hazardous as some of our postal predecessors back around the turn of the 20th century. The Post Office Department, as it was called back then, transported much of its mail by “fast mail trains.” And the cars, loaded with clerks busily sorting mail, were positioned directly behind the locomotive engine. This was the most dangerous place on a train, during a train wreck.
The Post Office Department heavily fined railway lines for each minute their fast mail trains failed to meet deadlines, so the pressure was on, to arrive at various stops on time. Sometimes meeting a deadline meant driving a train too fast for good safety, in order to make up for any lost time. And this often resulted in derailments and deaths. In fact, scores of clerks, in their forward-positioned mail cars, were perishing every year in the wrecks of demolished trains.
The annual salary of clerks on the fast trains was $1,500, but only $1,000 on the slower and safer branch lines, away from the trunk lines. But the higher pay wasn’t enough. Clerks on fast trains were constantly applying for transfers to the slower trains, and it was challenging to find anyone willing to do fast train work.
It appears surviving into old age was part of a mail clerk’s retirement plan.
On September 27, 1903, a mail train appropriately called the “Fast Mail,” and operated by the Southern Railway, left Washington, D.C., with New Orleans as its final destination. The Fast Mail sported Locomotive Engine #1102, which was less than a year old. Behind it trailed two mail cars, one express car, and one baggage car for the storage of mail. Five crew members were aboard, along with 13 mail clerks.
Unfortunately, the Fast Mail departed very late from our nation’s capitol, that day. The engineer was 33-year-old Joseph Broady. Broady was filling in for another engineer named Thomas Kritzer, who had not shown up for work on time, due to a scheduling error. But perhaps they should have waited a little longer for Kritzer, because Broady was unfamiliar with the treacherous roadbed of this particular line.
The Fast Mail made up for some of its lost time on its 170-mile journey from D.C. to Monroe, Virginia, but when it arrived it was still running an hour late. Broady had 166 more miles to go, from Monroe to Spencer, North Carolina. This was the next mail exchange point, so it was imperative to make up that remaining lost hour, in order to avoid fines.
The scheduled running time on this stretch was 4.25 hours, at an average speed of 39 mph. But in order to arrive on time, Broady would have to stoke the engine up to an average speed of 51 mph.
This young engineer seemed up to the challenge. It was later reported by witnesses that when his train was 15 miles outside of Danville, Virginia, it was blazing down the tracks at about 90 mph.
As the Fast Mail approached Danville, it descended a steep, three-mile grade toward a crossing of the Dan River. No one knows exactly the speed it was traveling at this point, as witnesses and historical experts have reported a broad range from 30 to 70 mph. Below this grade a sharp S-curve lurked, that led into the 300-foot long Stillhouse Trestle.
Broady must have felt very surprised when he suddenly spotted the unexpected curve. He recognized his peril, worrying he couldn’t negotiate it at his high speed. He hit the brakes. And in his desperation, he even reversed the wheels. And he sounded the whistle, screaming the warning of a runaway train.
Much too soon after this, the speeding train was leaning over the curve and the weight of the engine shifted heavily to the centrifugal side. The tipping and added weight to this side allowed the outside flange of a front wheel to contact the crossties and shatter, which knocked the locomotive off the rails.
The derailed train now bumped wildly over crossties for about half the distance across the Stillhouse Trestle. Then the entire conglomeration of metal, wood, mail, and humans, veered off on a tangent and plunged over the side, plopping into the muddy bed of the Dan River, 75 feet below.
Two children playing under this trestle were nearly struck by this free-falling behemoth, and barely escaped major injury. But three crew members and six mail clerks were killed on impact. Nine others survived, some by jumping off the train as it plunged off the trestle. But two survivors were so badly hurt they later succumbed to their injuries.
Hoards of Danville residents rushed to the scene. A fire broke out, but the Danville fire department quickly extinguished it, according to newspaper reports. Badly mutilated bodies were carried off on litters, while female onlookers fainted at the ghastly sight of them. The bodies of Joseph Broady and his fireman were mangled beyond recognition, and their hair and skin had been seared off by the scalding heat of the locomotive’s boiler.
Permeating the horrific ambiance of this carnage was the incongruous singing and chirping of canaries that had escaped from six crates that had broken open during the wreck. Which brings to mind the mail. The entire scene was littered with letters and packages.
The Postal Service, then and now, prides itself on protecting the sanctity of the mail. And in that vein, a postal clerk named Benjamin Boulding, who witnessed this accident, immediately grabbed his badge and sprang into action. He took charge of securing the loose mail and nearly all of it was saved, thanks to his efforts. He was celebrated as a hero for this, with his picture appearing in the October 3, 1903, edition of the Richmond Planet newspaper, in Richmond, Virginia.
The locomotive was salvageable also. Engine #1102 was recovered and transported to Spencer, finally making it to its destination, very, very late. There it was repaired, and it amazingly remained in service until 1935.
This is one of the most famous train wrecks in history. The accident made headlines across the country, along with calls to make mail trains safer for mail clerks. Newspapers complained that more than 40 clerks had been killed, and over 500 injured, thus far that year.
Poets took up the cause and wrote several ballads about this train wreck, all exercising poetic license, exaggerating the speed of the train and spinning other details. One of these ballads laid the blame on the Southern Railway, and the pressure they had placed on Engineer Broady to make up lost time.
In 1924, singer Vernon Dalhart recorded a version of this ballad for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and it became a big hit. It was the first Southern song to rise to national success. In fact, it was the first single to ever sell a million copies, and it eventually went on to sell seven million copies for the lucky Dalhart.
National record companies suddenly realized there was a big market for country music, and the country music industry was born. Many country music stars, and even stars of other genres, have covered this ballad since Dalhart’s rendition. These have included Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, The Statler Brothers, Woody Guthrie, John Mellencamp, and Johnny Cash.
The tune is called, Wreck of the Old 97. The words vary from singer to singer, but here are common lyrics to the song:
Wreck of the Old 97
Well, they gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia
Said Steve, you’re way behind time.
This is not 38 this is Old 97
You must put her into Spencer on time.
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.”
But it’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
With a line on a three-mile grade.
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
See what a jump he made.
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,
Scalded to death by the steam.
And then the telegram came to Washington station,
This is how it read,
It said “That brave engineer that has run Old 97
“Is lyin’ down in Danville dead.”
So now all you ladies, you better take warning
From this time on and learn,
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin’ husband,
He may leave you and never return.
If you like those lyric, then you might enjoy this youtube video, that includes Johnny Cash’s version, and a dramatic reenactment of the train wreck:
“Train Demolished.” The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, Indiana), 9/28/1903, p.1.
“Another Railroad Horror.” Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 9/28/1903, p.2.
“Many People Killed.” The Times-Mercury (Hickory, North Carolina), 9/30/1903, p.2.
“Saved Tons Of Mail. Postal Property Rescued By A Norfolk Clerk. Aided Wounded Also.” 10/3/1903. Richmond Planet (Richmond, Virginia), p.1.
“Hazardous Occupation.” Muscatine News-Tribune (Muscatine, Iowa), 10/4/1903, p.9.