Wrecks, by Numbers

Apropos of nearly nothing, a brief from the June 22, 1908, edition of The New York Times:

Umpire Assaulted and His Leg Broken

Two nines, one composed of Americans, the other of Italians, engaged in a game of baseball yesterday at Colden and Brunswick Streets, Jersey City. The umpire was Pasquale Carlo, 19 years old, of 173 Fifth Street. He gave a decision that did not suit the American players and several of them attacked him. He was knocked down and his left leg was broken. The police were summoned, but by the time they arrived the ball players had dispersed. Carlo was taken to the City Hospital.

What I was really fishing for when I came across that was information about old train wrecks that have served as fodder for folk ballads; especially ballads with train or engine numbers in the title. “Engine 143,” for instance (a song I remember hearing Joan Baez sing on her second album, not too long after steam locomotives were retired). “The Wreck of the 1256,” which is reminiscent of “Engine 143.” “The Wreck of the No. 9” And especially, “The Wreck of Old 97,” which I heard again while I was looking recently for train songs. (If you’re interested in the history of these songs, there is a definitive history and guide: “Long Steel Rail: The Railroad in American Folksong,” by Norm Cohen.)

You know “Old 97.” The most commonly sung lyrics:

They gave him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Saying, “Stevie, you’re way behind time.
This is not 38, but it’s Old 97,
You must put her into Spencer on time.”

He looked ’round and said to his black greasy fireman
“Just shovel in a little more coal,
And when I cross that old White Oak Mountain
You can just watch Old 97 roll.”

It’s a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville,
And the lie was a three-mile grade,
It was on that grade that he lost his air brakes,
And you see what a jump that she made.

He was going down the grade making 90 miles an hour,
When his whistle began to scream,
He was found in that wreck with his hand on the throttle,
He was scalded to death by the steam.

What I didn’t realize was that “Old 97” is based on an actual 1903 wreck just outside Danville, Virginia. There’s a nice writeup on it, complete with contemporary news accounts, here: Blue Ridge Institute and Museum: The Wreck of the Old 97.” As the Wikipedia article on the song notes, a copyright dispute over the ballad’s authorship wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

And yes, you should see what a jump she, and/or he, made.

4 Comments

Filed under History, Music

4 Responses to Wrecks, by Numbers

  1. Interesting. Coincidentally, I had this page open in my browser as I read this: vhttp://oldweirdamerica.wordpress.com/2009/05/25/23-engine-143-by-the-carter-family/ Lots of these songs there!

  2. Dan

    Yeah, that’s one of the pages I link to, I think — for “Engine 143” (I love the disclosure, both there and in “Long Steel Rail,” that though the wreck was an actual event, virtually every detail in the song, including the engine number (which was actually 134), is wrong. Great site and lots of music, though I didn’t try to listen to any of the cuts.
    The book’s discussion of the song includes a picture of the engineer, George Alley, and offers the full gamut of interpretations of the term “FFV.”

  3. Lydell

    Thinking this slipped by, I searched and found it didn’t actually qualify: “Well, I’ll sing you a song ’bout the old Forty Nine,
    The fastest engine on the Santa Fe line.
    On the fourteenth of April, she made a desp’rate dash,
    And she got there on time and she did not crash!” I knew it by the Smothers Brothers, but I didn’t know Shel Silverstein wrote it. As for Pasquale’s misfortune, bad as mob action is, there should be reprisals for bad umpiring other than a Ted Lilly hissy fit.

  4. Lydell

    Thinking this slipped by, I searched and found it didn’t actually qualify: “Well, I’ll sing you a song ’bout the old Forty Nine,
    The fastest engine on the Santa Fe line.
    On the fourteenth of April, she made a desp’rate dash,
    And she got there on time and she did not crash!” I knew it by the Smothers Brothers, but I didn’t know Shel Silverstein wrote it. As for Pasquale’s misfortune, bad as mob action is, there should be reprisals for bad umpiring other than a Ted Lilly hissy fit.

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