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I remember growing up in Yellow Branch, a lady named George who told anyone who wanted to listen to her that her father wrote the famous song “The Wreck of the Old 97”. She said he never made any money on the song because others stole it. At the time, we thought it was a story of an unlucky old lady.

As for stolen songs, my father said that they were quite common in the early days of the music industry and that the courts and copyright people had to catch up with any new musical “inventions” that appeared. When my parents were growing up in the 1920s more and more people bought Victrolas and listened to popular recordings. Recording the song “Wreck of the Old 97” became popular around the time my parents entered high school. As for the subsequent court case relating to this case, I have always suspected that my father had read or heard the old men sitting around the local country store talking about it. Rarely does a trial of these parties go to the United States Supreme Court, then or now.

It was also the end of an era when trains dominated land transport and commerce. People’s lives depended on trains running on time. US Mail contracts provided for hefty penalties whenever mail arrived late. Train wrecks were common. Time was running out for the Old 97 when it rose to fame because it only carried mail. The recording of the song captures well the situation the railway workers were facing that day.

They gave him his orders

In Monroe, Virginia

Saying Pete, you’re late on time

It’s not ’38, but it’s old ’97

You gotta put her in Spencer in time

. . .

Now ladies you must take the warning

From now on and on

Never say harsh words

To your true love and husband

He can leave you and never come back

What do we know about the wreckage of the Old 97 itself?

A newspaper article at the time reported the horrific accident, but then stressed the importance of getting back into business.

“A team of wreckers are working to remove the debris so that the trestle can be repaired for continued traffic as soon as possible tomorrow.” News-Herald, Morganton, North Carolina, October 1, 1903

The Virginia Encyclopedia states: “The trip usually took four and a quarter hours, but the train had left Monroe an hour late. In order to preserve the train’s reputation for always being on time, engineer Joseph A. “Steve” Broadey reportedly increased the speed of the locomotive to 50 miles per hour, an increase of 10 mph per hour. compared to its normal speed. . . Broadey was unable to reduce speed and reversed the engine to lock the wheels. The high-speed train continued straight ahead as the tracks curved. . . flying away dramatically from them before the locomotive and four wagons hit the rocky bottom of the shallow stream below. . . Two of the spectators were Fred Jackson Lewey, whose cousin Albion Clapp was one of the firefighters called on the train, and David Graves George, a telegraph operator from Pittsylvania County. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/wreck-of-the-old-97/

Could this telegraph operator named George be the father of the old lady of Yellow Branch? Could there be an element of truth to what she was claiming? Over the next week, how a train wreck became the subject of the 1924 recording, considered the first million-selling country music recording.

Hugh C. Rowland is a retired college dean who then served as a historical performer on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, dressed as a border farmer. To share your ideas with him, write to him at hugh.c.rowland@gmail.com and put “Altavista Journal-Union Star” in the subject line.


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