"The Wreck Of The Old 97": Country's First Million-Seller

Before the Edmund Fitzgerald went down with all hands, inspiring Gordon Lightfoot's famous ballad, there was another wreck and another song.

In 1903, The Southern Railway had a deal with the United States Postal Service for mail delivery. One of the trains involved in the mail haul was The Fast Mail, better known to history as The Old 97.

The Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late, which was good because the Southern Railway was charged a per-minute penalty for every minute of delay on the run from Monroe, Va. to Spencer, N.C. When the train left an hour late, engineer Steve Broady was instructed to make up the time at high speed, and by skipping a stop at Franklin Junction.

Broadey's attempt to follow orders would result in the death of nine people, as the train derailed at high speeds at the Stillhouse Trestle spanning Cherrystone Creek. The train came off the tracks at the turn into the trestle on September 27, 1903 - 107 years ago today, and The Old 97 fell 75 feet into the ravine below. Legend has it that Broadey was found with his hand still on the throttle.

The song "The Wreck of the Old 97" is one of the most famous ballads in pop music, and has been recorded by Johnny Cash, Boxcar Willie, Hank Williams III, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. There's even a band in Texas named for the song. Vernon Dalhart recorded the song in 1924, and the Nashville Songwriters Foundation has certified it as the first million-selling single in country music history.

The origin of the song itself is in dispute. Originally, Fred Jackson Lewey and Charles Noell are creditied as co-authors, with Lewey also claiming to have been the brother of one of the firemen killed in the wreck. David Graves George, a man who was one of the first on the scene at the wresck, also claimed to have written the song, even taking the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court.

Ultimately, the court decided that George's claim was false and subsequent research by folklorists point to Noell as the likely sole author. In any case, the song's melody is derived from a mid-19th century ballad, "The Ship That Never Returned," about a ship forced to sail forever looking for a place to dock.

A new version of the original ballad song formed the basis for "Charlie on the MTA" a tale about a man who can't get off the Boston Subway, bringing the whole thing full circle back to trains.

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