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Trial transcript reveals facts about ‘Old 97’ train wreck

A Danville writer researching the famous wreck of the “Old 97” struck gold when he found a 400-page transcript from a trial involving the engineer’s family and the Southern Railway.

As the Danville Register & Bee reports, author Larry Aaron unearthed a number of new sources as he explored the ongoing debate over who was to blame for the dramatic 1903 train crash near Danville that killed the engineer and eight other crewmen.

The finger pointing apparently played out in a trial, but that case was not the end of litigation arising from the disaster. As years went on, songwriters competed for credit and royalties for the famous ballad that immortalized engineer Steve Broadey and his “big greasy fireman.”

According to Encyclopedia Virginia, one songwriter’s efforts to win royalties from the “Victor Talking Machine Co.” went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The claimant won twice at trial and lost twice at the appellate level.

The song in question emerged in many variations (Johnny Cash’s version is among our favorites), but apparently the tune was not original at the time of the wreck. It was borrowed from a sailing ballad, later revised and popularized by the Kingston Trio as “M.T.A.

More on the wreck and the songs from the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum.

By Peter Vieth

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