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The Wreck of the Old 97

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Wreck of the Old 97

Wreck of the Old 97

On Friday, August 12th, at 3:00 pm the Lynchburg Museum will host a lecture presented by Howard Gregory.  His topic of discussion will be the Wreck of the Old 97.

What was the Wreck of the Old 97?  It was an American rail disaster involving the Southern Railway mail train, officially known as the Fast Mail, on September 27, 1903.  The train was en route from Monroe, VA to Spencer, NC.  The train consisted of two postal cars, one express and one baggage car for the storage of mail.  18 men were on board.  Due to excessive speed, in an attempt to maintain schedule, the train derailed at the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville, where the train careened off the side of the trestle bridge, killing eleven and injuring seven others.

Wreck of the Old 97

Newspaper-Wreck of the Old 97

On the day of the accident the Old 97 was behind schedule when it left Washington, DC and was an hour late when it arrived in Monroe.  At Monroe the engineer was instructed to get the Fast Mail to Spencer, 166 miles away, on time   The scheduled running time was four hours, fifteen minutes, at an average speed of 39 miles per hour.  The route between Monroe and Spencer was rolling terrain with numerous danger points due to the combination of grades and tight radius curves.  Engineers were warned to watch their speed.  However the engineer was unable to sufficiently reduce speed as he approached the 45-foot high Stilljhouse Trestle.  Approaching the curve leading to the trestle at about 70 miles per hour caused the entire train to derail and plunge into the ravine below.  A huge fire erupted and consumed all of the jagged debris from the wooden cars.  Nine of the eleven men who died were killed immediately.

Although the Vice-president of the Southern Railway placed the blame of the accident firmly on the engineer, the railroad was at least partially to blame, as they has a lucrative contract with the U.S. Post Office to haul mail.  The contract included a penalty clause for each minute the mail was late into Spencer.

The accident became a sensation with thousands of spectators at the scene, newspaper stories and a series of ballads written about he wreck.  The most popular ballad was an early country hit and the first million-selling record in the United States when recorded by Vernon Dalhart for RCA Victor Records in 1924.

The lecture will take place at 901 Court Street, starting to 3:00 pm.  Tickets are $10, unless you are a member of the Museum.  Once the lecture is finished don’t forget to tour the special museum exhibit A Great Change in the Situation of Man: Lynchburg’s Railroads, found on the lower level of the museum. This exhibit is free.