Friday, May 20, 2011

Putting Two and Two Together in Danville, VA




Sometimes it has to be written on a billboard for me to put two and two together. In this case, it was a mural covering the side of a building in downtown Danville, VA.


The mural covers the entire side of the building, depicting an old steam locomotive and an inset picture of some of the crewmen. The words “The Old 97” are written below.


Old 97 is the number of the Fast Mail train that ran between Monroe, VA, and Spencer, NC.


Legend has it, the train was running behind schedule. (And this was a train that was never late.) In order to make up time, Joseph “Steve” Broady ordered more coal for the boiler. Careening down a steep grade, Old 97 lost her brakes and was unable to slow down before reaching a curve at the Stillhouse Trestle just outside Danville.


The train left the tracks and crashed at the base of the 75-foot trestle, killing eleven people.


News of the train wreck reached newspapers across the country and even sparked the ballad “Wreck of the Old 97.”


The ballad was originally recorded by G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter in 1923. But it was Vernon Dalhart’s version recorded in 1924 The song became first million-selling record in the United States and wound up selling more than seven million copies.


I’ve long listened to Johnny Cash’s version of “Wreck of Old ‘97,” but never really put Danville and “Old 97” together. That is, until I saw the mural.