WRECK OF THE OLD NINTY SEVEN
The “Old 97”, a Southern Railway train officially known as the Fast Mail, was en route from Monroe, Virginia to Spencer, North Carolina when it left the track at Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, Virginia on September 27, 1903. The wreck inspired the famous railroad ballad. The ballad first recorded commercially by Virginia musicians G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Vernon Dalhart’s version was released in 1924, and is sometimes cited as the first million-selling country music release in the American record industry. Since then, “Wreck of the Old 97” has been recorded by numerous artists, including Flatt and Scruggs, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams III, Patrick Sky, Boxcar Willie and Hank Snow. The Texas alt-country band “Old 97’s” took their name from this song.
Originally, the ballad was attributed to Fred Jackson Lewey and co-author Charles Noell. Lewey claimed to have written the song the day after the accident, in which his cousin Albion Clapp was one of the two firemen aboard the ill-fated train. Lewey worked in a cotton mill that was at the base of the trestle, and also claimed to be on the scene of the accident pulling the victims from the wreckage. In 1927 it was claimed that the actual author of “Wreck of the Old 97” was David Graves George, a local resident who was also one of the first on the scene. George apparently did write a ballad about the wreck, but his claim of authorship was not upheld by the United States Supreme Court, nor did the Court invalidate the 1924 copyright claimed by F. Wallace Rega, in part due to the testimony of folklore expert Robert Winslow Gordon. Subsequent research by others, notably Alfred P. Scott, determined that Charles Noell was most likely the originator of the famous ballad, and that George’s and Lewey’s claims were spurious.
Well 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 Well he turned around and said to his fireman shovel in a little more coal And when we cross this big White Mountain we’ll watch old 97 roll[ dobro ]It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville and a line on a three mile gradeIt’s on that grade that he lost his airbrakes you see what a jump he made They were 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 A scalded to death by the steam[ fiddle ]Then the telegram come to Washington city and this is how it read The brave engineer that run old 97 he’s a laying in old Danville dead Now all you ladies we take a warning from this time now and learn Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband , for he may leave, never to return.