1903 – The Wreck of the Old ’97

The “Old ’97” is one of those rare things to be better known by its nickname than its actual name. It was a train named the Fast Mail, which ran from Monroe, Virginia to Spencer, North Carolina. The Old ’97 had acquired a reputation as a train that never ran late – and it was attempting to live up to this reputation that doomed it.

On September 27, 1903, the engineer (that is, the driver) of the Old ’97, Joseph “Steve” Broadey was running at a faster than normal speed, attempting to make up lost time along the route, so that the train would arrive in Spencer on time. The train was an hour behind schedule leaving Monroe, which meant that to get to Spencer at the usual hour, the running speed would have to be increased from the normal 39 mph to at least 51 mph.

Unfortunately, the route between Monroe and Spencer was steep and winding, with many ascents and descents, and a number of tight curves. It was at one of these, a curve leading into a trestle bridge across the ravine of Cherrystone Creek (near Danville, Virginia), that the train came to grief, derailing and killing nine of those aboard it.

Broadey was unjustly blamed for the accident by his employers, who denied ordering him to make up the lost time. The fact that their lucrative mail-hauling contract specified penalty clauses for each minute the train ran late tends to undermine their position.

Referenced in:

The Wreck of the Old ’97 – Vernon Dalhart