Category: History

The Fast Mail

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 Fast Mail train wreck, lying below the Stillhouse Trestle.

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 man who saved the mail, pictured in the Richmond Planet newspaper.

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.

Giant Rock

Giant Rock is purported to be the largest freestanding boulder in the world. It’s seven stories high, and covers 5,800 square feet of the Mojave Desert, in Landers, California.

My wife walking toward Giant Rock.

I think we humans have rocks in our heads. Unusual rocks seem to fascinate us, and Giant Rock is no exception. Native Americans considered it sacred, for crying out loud. For thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers, tribes from hundreds of miles away would gather at Giant Rock for holy celebrations and shamanistic rituals.

In the 1930’s a German prospector named Frank Critzer staked a claim at Giant Rock. He excavated beneath the boulder and built a 400 square foot room that kept him cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The north side of Giant Rock. The entrance to Frank Critzer’s room is at the base. It’s now sealed off. Apparently, people with rocks in their heads like to build campfires here, which has left a burn scar on the rock.

But Frank Critzer was a man of strange and off-putting behavior, who the locals avoided. Seems this nut had more than the ordinary amount of rocks in his head. He also had an odd fascination for shortwave radios, and placed an antenna on top of Giant Rock.

During World War II, in all their rock-headed war hysteria, local law enforcement began to suspect Critzer was a German spy. They laid siege to his underground home in 1942, and during the battle that ensued, a dynamite explosion killed this crazy prospector.

A few years before Critzer’s demise, he met and befriended George van Tassel. Van Tassel was the top flight inspector at Hughes Aircraft, a company owned by Howard Hughes, and he often flew with Howard Hughes. After Critzer died, Tassel managed to secure a federal lease around Giant Rock, for purposes of developing an airstrip that Critzer had initially established.

He eventually built a home, cafe, and dude ranch beside the rock. Howard Hughes and other guests would land at the airstrip to visit this unique site.

The south side of Giant Rock. A large piece of it broke off in the year 2000. As you can see, graffiti artists with rocks in their heads have turned the broken piece into their canvas.

But in 1953, things got a little weird. Seems van Tassel’s head started to accumulate more rocks. He began hosting group meditations in the room beneath the rock, that Frank Critzer had excavated. One day that year, van Tassel reported that an alien from the planet Venus had visited him, and had brought him aboard a spaceship. There he was taught a technique for rejuvenating the human body.

In 1954, van Tassel, along with some volunteers, began building an unusual domed structure called the “Integratron.” The purpose of this building was to research time-travel, anti-gravity, and methods for rejuvenating the cells of the body. He claimed that no metal whatsoever was used in the construction of this Integratron; not even screws or nails.

Howard Hughes, a man known for the many rocks residing in his own head, and many other rock-headed folks, gave donations toward the completion of the all-wood Integratron. And during the 24 years required for its completion, van Tassel held annual UFO conventions to raise money for the project. 1959 was the peak year for these events, when 11,000 ufologists and enthusiasts attended a convention at Giant Rock.

In 1978, two weeks before the Integratron was slated to hold its grand opening, George van Tassel dropped over dead at the age of 68. The poor man missed the opportunity to rejuvenate the cells of his body, by a mere fortnight.

Due to his death, the Integratron did not open, and sat vacant for several decades. But in the year 2000, van Tassel’s three sisters purchased the Integratron and began operating it as a tourist attraction. Coincidentally, that same year, Giant Rock split. A huge slab peeled off its southern end, revealing a beautiful white granite interior.

The white granite interior that was exposed in the year 2000, when Giant Rock split.

Nobody knows why Giant Rock split. My guess is, the dynamite blast that killed Frank Critzer in 1942, also formed a hidden crack in the rock. The crack gradually grew until it split the boulder 58 years later.

Today, Giant Rock sits beside a lonely dirt road, a few miles away from the Integratron. You can reach it by motor vehicle, but the road is a little bit rough. You can also tour the Integratron, and experience a “sound bath” from sound frequencies produced by quartz bowls. I understand it’s very rejuvenating. It’s also extremely expensive.

The Integratron.

The Giant Rock airstrip is no longer used, but is thought by some to be a landing area for UFO’s.

I don’t know if George van Tassel ever actually came into contact with aliens from Venus. But I do have great respect for him. This is because he stayed in his element, and never ran for political office.

I have never run for political office, either. And I was once abducted by aliens from outer space. You can read about that eldritch incident by clicking this link, which will beam you to the post.

Am I crazy? Yes. Completely. Do I have rocks in my head? Of course.

That’s why I blog.

This is me standing near the airstrip, which is to the left. I’m waiting for a UFO.

Crown Prince Lookout

There’s a lot of weird history from World War II. One strange chapter relates to the Air Warning Service (AWS). It was staffed by civilians, most of them female, who observed the skies of our country and warned of any approaching enemy aircraft. Of which there were none. No, the 48 contiguous states were never invaded by air, land, or sea, during World War II. At least not that I’m aware of.

About 750,000 strong searched our skies from 1942 to 1944. They were stationed along our west and east coasts. Each member of the AWS received about six weeks of training in aircraft recognition, so that they could detect the difference between friendly planes and enemy planes.

Their training proved very popular, and became a fad among those who were not in the AWS. Clubs sprang up all over the country, where members dedicated themselves to learning how to recognize aircraft. Well, they didn’t have TV in those days, so they had to do something for entertainment.

Supposedly, Crown Prince Lookout, in what was then Joshua Tree National Monument (now a National Park), was one of the many aircraft observation posts of the AWS. I say supposedly, because the information on this is sketchy.

I’ve hiked to Crown Prince Lookout several times, to search for any evidence of this post. The trail is unmarked and unmaintained, but with a little diligence, and guidance from a book, the site can be located.

Crown Prince Lookout, from the approach trail, below. There’s only one sane way up, and it’s tricky to find.

It’s a hill full of piled up granite boulders. The only way up is through a chimney-like acclivity, requiring a little bit of cragsmanship to negotiate. Atop Crown Prince Lookout is a square, cement foundation about 4 feet by 4 feet, that appears to be the remnant of a communication tower. Surrounding this foundation are a number of small, cement footings level to the ground, that appear to be the attachment points for stabilizing guy wires that kept the tower from being blown over.

Atop Crown Prince Lookout. The tower foundation is at the upper left corner of photo.

Transporting the material to build this tower, up the treacherous route to the summit of Crown Prince Lookout, must have required some ingenuity and perseverance. And then manning (or womanning, as was more likely the case) this point, with binoculars scanning the sky, looking for Zeros and bombers that never materialized, must have required tremendous patience.

Looking south, from the tower foundation.

Or maybe it was fun. For those who love to haunt high, lonely places, the solitude offered by Crown Prince Lookout may have been spiritually transformative. I can only imagine how peaceful it felt in that isolated location, in the time of the world’s largest war. It’s a great place to meditate.

Looking southwest from Crown Prince Lookout. This is likely the direction any enemy planes would have come from.
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