"The Wreck of the Old 97"
Legendary Train Wreck Inspired Country Song & New Book
By JOE TENNIS | BRISTOL HERALD COURIER | October 04, 2010*** Published Thursday, Sept. 30 4 in the Bristol Herald Courier. ***
BLACKWELL CHAPEL, VA — You have probably never heard of Henry Whitter, a musician who came to Bristol, Tenn., in 1927.
And you may not know the man who wrecked that Danville train and whose remains have been buried near Blackwell Chapel in Washington County, Va., for a century.
But meet the musician, Henry Whitter, who sang a song about Joseph Andrew "Steve" Broady.
It was a train wreck – literally.
On Sept. 27, 1903, Broady wrecked a train near downtown Danville, Va. – and gave folks like Whitter and another early country music pioneer, Vernon Dalhart, something to sing about.
This weekend, at Bristol's Rhythm & Roots Reunion, you're likely to still hear at least somebody chug through "The Wreck of the Old 97." That song, also known as "The Wreck on the Southern Old 97," has been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash.
BEFORE THE BIRTH
Whitter didn't write the tune. But he made a recording, followed by a copycat version by Dalhart, who scored a million-seller with his 1924 version.
The tune details, though not completely factually, the tale of Broady's failure to "put her in Spencer (North Carolina) on time," as the old song goes.
Today, cows surround the cemetery where Broady's remains lie on a hill in Washington County, little more than 20 miles from downtown Bristol.
Cattle have since toppled fences and a few gravestones. Yet the gravestone for Broady, the man who wrecked that Danville train – and died – remains upright.
It's a curious landmark for visitors.
Train buffs come from all over the country looking for Broady's final resting spot, said landowner and farmer Mike Jackson, of Blackwell Chapel.
Broady wrecked the mail car, and caused several deaths, inspiring a string of legends, according to Larry G. Aaron's recently released "The Wreck of the Old 97" (The History Press, $19.99).
"The wreck of the Old 97 on the Southern Railway near North Danville, Virginia on Sunday, September 27, 1903, is one of the most famous railroad wrecks in American history," Aaron writes.
"From the moment of the crash until today, numerous legends surrounding this terrible event have been told and retold until it is difficult to separate fact from fiction."
Still, those legends grew into an early country music classic, which was recorded even before the official "birth" of country music at Bristol in July-August 1927.
That birth owes its claim, essentially, to the near-simultaneous discovery of star acts Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family at the "Bristol Sessions," held that summer by Peer.
Among the acts making recordings: Henry Whitter.
As the story goes, Mr. Whitter was so bad that he inspired Pop Stoneman to make music.
Later, Stoneman's success as a recording act inspired Peer to come to Bristol to find more talent like him.
All along, folks sang about that fatal wreck of the Old 97 in Danville.
They still do.
"He was kin to my grandmother, which makes him a distant kin to me," Jackson said, overlooking Broady's grave.
Yet Jackson wonders why Broady, who grew up near Blackwell Chapel, was driving that train so fast.
There's also the question, as the old legend goes, if Broady really aimed to "put her in Spencer on time" or "put her in hell."
Jackson shook his head.
"They wrote a song about him. They made a martyr out of him. And even though he may be a little kin to me, how many people did he kill, by doing that – just being foolish?" Jackson said. "But, I reckon, being 33 years old, I reckon you do some crazy things."
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TO READ IT
What: "The Wreck of the Old 97" by Larry G. Aaron
Where: Available at Museum of the Middle Appalachians, Saltville; and Mountain Music Museum, Bristol