Sunday, September 27, 2009

Wreck of the Old 97

As a child, I remember hearing "Wreck of the Old 97" performed on radio and on TV. I'm not sure that we ever sang it in school.

But I didn't know, when I was growing up, that it was based on a true story.

The Old 97 was a Southern Railway train known as "Fast Mail" that had a reputation for never being late. Southern Railway had a profitable contract with the Postal Service to deliver mail, but the contract included a clause that would impose a penalty for each minute the train was late. Consequently, it seems like a safe assertion to say that the operators of Old 97 were always under pressure to be on schedule.

On Sept. 27, 1903, the Old 97 was traveling from Monroe in west–central Virginia to Spencer in western North Carolina, a distance of about 150 miles, when it left the track about midway through its route in the vicinity of Danville, Va. Nine people were killed.

The engineer had been ordered to operate the train at high speed because it was already an hour behind schedule when it left Monroe, Va. But after the wreck, Southern Railway denied that the engineer had been pressured to make up for lost time. The song, which reportedly was written by a cousin of one of the firemen aboard the train, clearly put the blame for the wreck on the railroad company.

I honestly don't know how many people have recorded "Wreck of the Old 97" — possibly hundreds, maybe even thousands — and the list of people who have performed the song may be virtually endless. I do know that numerous well–known artists — among them Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie and Boxcar Willie — recorded it over the years.

What's the moral of the story? Well, I guess, in these recessionary times, when so many people are hurting because of the selfishness and greed of a few, it is a reminder that big companies putting their financial interests ahead of the lives and safety of others is nothing new.