Wreck of the Old 97 & the End of the Confederacy in Danville

When there is a big industrial accident these days, the lawyers come out and drain any of the real emotion or truth out of the event and displace it with cash.  In the old days, at least in the southern hills, they wrote a ballad.   So it was when a train with Joseph A. (“Steve”) Broadey’s hand on the throttle plunged into a ravine near Danville, VA in 1903.  Nine people were killed and seven injured in what the plaque called one of the worst railroad accidents in Virginia history.  This is what they mean when they say you are heading for a train wreck.

I heard the song as a kid. My father’s version was sung by Boxcar Willie (I think), although there is a Hank Snow rendition and Hank was my father’s favorite singer. I thought it was just a song, not a real historical event, but it had some very precise lyrics.  “They gave him his orders in Monroe Virginia saying ‘Steve you’re way behind time’” … “It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville and a line on a three mile grade.”

So in the wonderful world of Internet, I checked it out and found out it was true, so when I drove through Lynchburg I went looking for the place.  A couple people claimed to have written the lyrics.  It was first recorded in 1924 and you can listen to the original version at this link.

This is the whole story from the Danville Historical Society.

All that is left now is this easily overlooked historical marker along a seedy patch of Highway 58 just to the west of Danville.  There is nothing left of the trestle or the tracks and the ravine is overgrown with brush and vines.  It must have been really big news around here in 1903, but more than 100 years later only the song abides.  The picture of the train, BTW, is just a train crossing in Danville, unrelated to the Wreck of the Old 97, except that they are both trains.

Another thing about Danville is that it was the last capital of the Confederacy. This lasted literally only a matter of days, as Jeff Davis and his cabinet fled south, with Union troops in hot pursuit, after the defeat of Southern arms. Davis took up residence in the house of a prominent local man called William Sutherlin.  Sutherlin made his money in the tobacco business and was a successful and flexible businessman both before and after the Civil War.

Davis was a great man, according to his lights, but he was misguided. Robert E Lee and Joe Johnston did the right thing and in April 1865 contributed to saving the United States and making it the country whose freedom we love today. Davis wanted to keep on fighting, even after Appomattox. At some point, hanging on stops being noble and becomes stupid, pernicious and immoral.  I admire Lee & Johnston, Davis not so much. The guide treated Davis as a hero. I don’t agree. 

Chrissy and I visited the house, an Italian style mansion. Pictures are above and below. The woman in the painting above fireplace is the Sutherlin’s daughter on her wedding day. The house is restored to the period of around the Civil War. You really get the old South feeling there. The Daughters of the Confederacy use the place for their meetings. One of the rooms is deeded over to them.