September 27, 1903, dawned bright and clear in the Blue Ridge Mountain cotton mill town of Danville, Virginia. It was a warm, Indian summer Sunday, and on nearby White Oak Mountain the maples were turning to their fall colors. It was a lazy morning, and many of the mill-workers were sitting on their porches or doing chores around the house. Coming into the town from the north were the tracks of the Southern Railway, which ran down the mountain, over a wooden bridge called Stillhouse Trestle, across the Dan River, and on through Danville to North Carolina and eventually Atlanta. For over a year now, the residents had gotten used to a new fast mail train that ran the route, a train called Old 97. This morning, some of the people were glancing at their pocket watches, and wondering why Old 97 was late.
So were the Southern dispatchers. Up the line, at the hamlet of Monroe, Virginia, they had put a new crew on Old 97, headed by engineer Steve Broady. He was a young, ambitious man, and when he found out his train was running late, he determined to make up the time. He decided to “highball” it. The problem was that Broady was new to the route, and didn’t know just how tricky the curve into Danville really was. As he came roaring along the river toward the trestle, his whistle screaming, something happened. Some say he lost his airbrakes; some say he was simply going too fast.
The people in Danville looked up when they heard the whistle and knew that the mail train was coming, but also that there was something dreadfully wrong. It was coming too fast. As they watched in horror, the locomotive and its five cars flew off the rails just before it reached the bridge and plunged seventy-five feet into the ravine below. Cars crashed into the timbers bracing the trestle, and the engine boilers exploded. People from the town raced over to the scene, trying to rescue anyone alive. Few people were. The conductor, the flagman, and both firemen