Joe Broady was the engineer who died ''with his hand on the
throttle”— in the wreck of Old 97.
About Joe Broady himself, almost nothing is known for sure
and except for one formal, hand-tinted photograph, we don't even know what he
looked like. Although 33 years old at the time of his death on September 27,
1903, he was unmarried and left no heirs, nor does anyone alive today remember
him. No memorabilia of him is known to exist at all, not even the railroad
watch he surely carried.
He was a tall, slim, and somewhat flamboyant young
railroader in love with speed. In fact, his co-workers had nicknamed him
"Steve" for a daredevil named Steve Broadie who had reputedly jumped
off the Brooklyn Bridge and survived.
That Broady was somewhat reckless is a supposition supported
by a record of at least two reprimands given him by his superiors at Norfolk
& Western, for which he worked before transferring to the Southern Railway
just a month before the famous wreck.
When it came to high-balling locomotives, the powerful 4-6-0
engines running on Southern's crack Washington-to-Atlanta Number 97 mail route
were literally the fastest things on earth, capable of 100 mph on
Several different locomotives pulled train No. 97 over
sections of the 648-mile run, including Baldwin Engine 1102 in which Broady
died, but all were affectionately dubbed "Old 97."
The train ran under a lucrative contract with the federal
government, specifying that the Southern was to pay heavy fines for each minute
late the mail arrived. Old 97 was therefore given clear track and all other
trains—passenger and freight—had to take a siding at least 15 minutes before
its passing. The Southern frequently fired anyone who cost Old 97 time.
On Sunday morning, September 27, 1903, Old 97. consisting of
two postal cars, one express car and one baggage car, was held up for over an
hour in Washington because of switching problems. By the time it reached
Monroe, Va., it had still not made up the lost time.
It was in Monroe, just north of Lynchburg, that Broady
hooked onto Old 97 for his famous ride into history, a trip chronicled in a
still-popular bluegrass song that, except for two facts, got the fatal trip all
Broady probably should never have been driving Old 97 at
all, and his last trip was likely also his first, although he had been driving
lesser trains over the same route for a month and was passably familiar with
it. According to later testimony, the fast-talking Broady had been eager to get
his hands on Old 97 to "show everybody what she'll do."
By the time Broady, Fireman A.G. "Buddy" Clapp,
Conductor J. Thomas Blair, Brakeman James Robert Moody, and Student Fireman
John Madison Hodge rolled out of Monroe for the 166-mile leg to Spencer, N.C.,
Old 97 was a full hour and 10 minutes behind schedule.
Of the 18 people aboard OId 97, 11, including all five men
in the locomotive, were killed; six were injured; and one, the express
messenger, W.F. Pinchney, miraculously escaped unscathed.
According to the most popular version of the song, written
by David Graves George, Broady was told "You got to put her into Spencer
on time," but Broady's orders instructed him against trying to make up the
The third stanza comments on the "mighty rough road
from Lynchburg to Danville" but it was no more treacherous than much of
the line and was traversed daily both by passenger trains and freights weighing
far more than the relatively lightweight mail train.
The stanza goes on to state that Broady lost his air brake
on the grade, but the brake on Engine No. 1102 was a brand new 9½" model
that was the standard of the day and regularly used to control far heavier trains
than Old 97, which was pulling only four lightweight wooden cars.
According to Raymond B. Carneal, who spent his entire career
as a trainman, most of it on the Danville Division, it seems highly unlikely
that the entire braking system on Old 97 could have failed, and investigators
found no' indication that it did.
Carneal also disputes the most famous line of the song, that
Broady was " ... going down the grade making 90 miles an hour. '' Based on
how far the train traveled once it left the track, Broady's speed was probably
45-50 mph, still four to five times the posted limit for the curve crossing
Still House Trestle, where the wreck occurred.
The day of the wreck was a beautiful. clear, and
unseasonably warm Sunday.
Many people were outside on their porches and lawns as Old
97 came roaring past just before 3 p.m. Several witnesses said people commented
on both the train's lateness and its unusual speed. A few said they saw Broady
inside the cab of the engine as he approached the curve, desperately pulling
back on the locomotive's controls, apparently trying to slow it down by putting
the wheels into reverse. In fact, the whistle that "broke into a
scream" may have been the engine's locked-up drivers sliding along the
The train left the tracks a few feet before reaching Still
House Trestle, not in a "leap" but by plowing down the muddy 40-foot
embankment, then turning on its side and trapping Broady beneath it by the
legs. His hand was nowhere near the throttle.
People arrived on the scene within minutes and Broady was
still alive, although not escaping steam from the ruptured boiler which was
burning away most of his skin. He reportedly begged someone to cut off his legs
to allow him to escape, but died within minutes, "scalded to death by the
steam." At least in this instance the songwriter got it correct.
As train wrecks went in 1903, that of Old 97 was relatively
unremarkable. The tracks were repaired and trains resumed operation within 18
hours. Had it not been for the song, it would quickly have been forgotten.
''The Wreck of the OId 97” later sold more than six million
copies, yet David Graves George, who neglected to have it copyrighted, died in
obscure poverty after many years of court battles to win royalties.
The body of Joseph A. Broady was taken by rail back to his
home on Tumbling Creek near Saltville and laid to rest. Although in the song,
the ladies are advised "Never speak harsh words to your true loving
husband,” Broady was never married, yet legend has it that an unidentified
young woman traveled down from Bluefield for the funeral, spoke to no one, and
left immediately afterward, never to be seen or heard from again.
Today, all that remains of Joe Broady is a toppled
tombstone, a folksong and the lonesome wind—a wind that sometimes, late at
night, sounds exactly like the screaming of a train.
Robert L. Kinney is a full-time outdoor writer and the
author of two published novels. He is currently completing a book on the wreck
of Old 97 and looking for a publisher. He lives in Sugar Grove, Virginia.
"The Wreck of Old 97"
Oh, they gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia.
Saying, Steve, you're way behind time,
This is not 38, it is old 97.
You got to put her into Danville on time.
Oh, he looked around his cab at his black greasy fireman,
Saying shovel in a little more coal.
And when we cross that White Oak Mountain, You're going
to watch old 97 roll!
Now, it's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And it's lying on a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brake, you can
see what a jump he made.
He was a-going down the grade making 90 miles an hour.
When his whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle.
And scalded to death by the steam.
Now, all you ladies, you'd better take fair warning.
From this day on and learn,
Never speak harsh words to your true loving husband,
He may leave you and never return.
This video features Johnny Cash singing the Old 97 (Source: Niels peter Larsen, YouTube)
compounded the aftermath of the incident was that the wreck had been caused by
a 6-year-old boy.
The investigation determined
that Charlie Whitener, Jr., had put rocks on the railroad tracks. Charlie lived
with his mother, who worked at night and was not able to properly attend to her
son. His father was serving a jail sentence and was thus not in the home.
At about 4:15 in the afternoon
of April 23, Charlie placed the rocks and hid behind a fence to get ready to
watch as the train, travelling nearly 60 mph, approached. The conductor failed
to see the rocks and the train derailed and overturned.
Whitener confessed and was
quoted in the local paper: “It was a lot of fun seeing the cars pile up and the
steam coming out. I laughed about it, just like I did when I wrecked my toy
Four people were taken to the
hospital with injuries, but no one was killed. It was estimated that repair
costs would be $15,000.
The sheriff’s investigation
found another child witness who had seen Charlie place the rocks.
Spokespeople from the railroad
concluded that Charlie was responsible, but they did not want to prosecute him.
They wanted only to keep him away from the railroad, as his mother’s home sat
on a bank right by the tracks.
went before Juvenile Court Judge Bowers with a social worker. The social worker
informed the judge that Charlie needed his tonsils and adenoids removed. With
the approval of three railroad representatives, Charlie’s mother and his
grandfather, the judge included the removals as part of Charlie’s sentencing.
In addition, Charlie would live with his grandfather, a well-respected farmer,
until his father was out of jail.
would then go from hanging out on the railroad tracks to learning farming
skills from his grandfather.