Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

Scalded to Death by the Steam

Scalded to Death by the Steam

© Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1984; W. H. Allen Co., 1985



The city council met last night;
the vote was four to three,
To tear the home town depot down,
and build a factory,
To take that strip of history,
and tear it off the map,
To take old Engine Number Nine,
and melt her into scrap...
(“Blue Water Line,” Anonymous)

In my grandparents’ house where I spent some years as a child in the mid-forties, there was an old wind-up Victrola with packets of needles and a cabinet full of old records. There was also a delicate lady's guitar with one frizzled string.

On rainy days, I played the Victrola. One of the first records I discovered was Vernon Dalhart’s “Wreck of the Old 97.” I listened to it over and over, thrilling to the words. “The Wreck of the 1256,” “The Wreck of the Virginian No. 3,” “The Wreck of the C & O No. 5 ”—all these I loved and learned. My grandfather was something of a train buff, and encouraged my singing. Among his frequent homilies was the story of the brave engineer Billy Richardson who had been tragically killed on duty. He urged me to remember, perhaps sensing that the railroad, at least as he knew it, was dying.

Lexington had once been a fairly busy rail terminal. By the tracks that ran down behind my grandparents’ house I stood every day in summer, making friends long-distance with the nameless engineer who backed the only slow C&O freight engine into Lexington each morning around eleven, then took it out again a while later, this time headfirst. Soon it would stop coming altogether.

One day Andaddy had business in West Virginia, and I rode along with him in his 1926 Model T. Ford, which he called his “confounded machine.” I still remember the spring morning, “the sunlight piercing the leaves,” as one of the songs went. By the side of the road beyond Covington there was a sign: JERRY’S RUN. I knew the cities in the songs existed, like Washington and Charlottesville, but it took that tiny landmark to convince me of a deeper truth. “From Covington to Jerry’s Run, old number five did roll....”

“Is there really an Allegheny Tunnel?” I asked, anticipating the next line: “Through the Allegheny Tunnel with the crew so brave and bold....”

There was, up a treacherous rutted railroad access lane, where we got out of the car and walked amid poison ivy and hawthorn, following the track around a bend. There it was, a black arc in the mountainside! “Little Sweetheart,” he said, for the millionth time, “remember this.”

I date my passion for train songs and the stories behind them from that moment, near my sixth birthday. For it was at that moment that I saw the stories as true, about real people, who had suffered and died.

Eventually I got four strings for that old guitar and learned to play it ukelele style, but it had not been cared for and was warped and dry and would not stay in tune, so for my eighth birthday I got a beautiful Favilla tenor ukelele, bigger than an ordinary uke. I sang barbershop songs, Hawaiian songs, train wreck songs. My mother commented that she thought I’d collected every horrible song ever written. But what could you expect from a Mozart fan?

When, in 1949, a radio station went on the air in Lexington, I never missed a chance to sing on it. During the week my down-hill neighbor John Starling (late of the Seldom Scene) and I would sometimes sing and play together, but each Saturday at noon we would scowl at each other across the stage of the Kiddies’ Karnival and vie for the $3.00 grand prize, which was won by getting the highest rating for the day on something called an “applause meter.’ Sometimes one of us even won.

In philosophical moments I pondered the stories of the wrecks, wondering as much as I could bear to about the suffering of the men who were scalded to death by the steam. That year I prevailed on my father to take me to Danville to see where Old 97 had crashed. The field trip was a disappointment. Stillhouse Trestle was gone, the ravine partially filled to create Highway 58, and not a sign of the excitement.

It was only after I’d finished college, when the “urban folk renewal” movement of the early I960s started, that I began to realize the value of my music. I was lucky enough to sing professionally off and on for five years between college and marriage, for three years at Peabody's Bookshop in Baltimore, and later at some places in Nashville. Along with other ballads I sang like “Three Drowned Sisters” and “Roane County,” I still wondered what truths lay behind my all-time favorites, the wreck songs.

I had two great railroading friends in those days. A B&O westbound train left Baltimore around suppertime, arriving at Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, about eleven, where “Happy” Myers and Charlie McCrory were the night dispatcher and relief agent-operator. The connecting N&W train “up the valley” of Virginia (southward) to Buena Vista didn’t leave until three or four A.M., So deep in the night I would sing Happy and Charlie train songs. Soon I began to alert them ahead of time of my coming, and they would be waiting for me with ham biscuits and hot coffee.

I went on to life’s other things: marriage, teaching, mothering, novel-writing—with train wrecks very much on a back burner. Once in those years I came upon a poem by Whittier which went in part,

CONDUCTOR BRADLEY (always may his name
Be said with reverence!) as the swift doom came,
Smitten to death, a crushed and mangled frame,
Sank, with the brake he grasped just where he stood
To do the utmost that a brave man could
And die, if needful, as a true man should.
Men stooped above him; women dropped their tears
On that poor wreck beyond all hopes or fears,
Lost in the strength and glory of his years.
What heard they? Lo! the ghastly lips of pain,
Dead to all thought save duty’s, moved again:
“Put out the signals for the other train.”
-- John Greenleaf Whittier

Excited to be reminded, I actually began a paper on the train wreck songs. I think the reason I quit was that I could not imagine a journal that would be interested in such a “study.”

In January of 1982 I was asked to write this book. I was skeptical, knowing, when I got right down to it, nothing about trains, and not a lot about American popular poetry. I thought there would not be enough material for an entire book.

Finally I agreed to spend a few months on the project, still doubtful about the saleability of such a topic, even if the material could be found.

What has developed is a book about train accident songs, and the wrecks or mishaps that the songs record. I began with the songs, then researched the events. The songs included cover a time period roughly from the Civil War to the First World War.

If one marked every spot on a map of the lower forty-eight states where a wreck that had a song composed about it occurred, a heavy cluster would form west of the Blue Ridge and east of the Ohio River, north of the Smokies, and south of the north fork of the James River. Though there are certain notable exceptions, clearly it is Appalachia where the strongest tradition of ballads about railroad disasters developed. In studying these ballads and their stories, interesting people have emerged from the mists of the past, and this is a book, it turns out, about some brave men, and some fools.


Oft when I feel my engine swerve
As o'er strange rails we fare,
I strain my eyes around the curve
For what awaits us there.
-Cy Warman

For just about a century, steam railroading in America flourished. On Christmas Day, 1830, the first regular passenger service began. Scarcely a century later, competition from automobiles, buses, trucks, and eventually airplanes, had already begun to effect the slow choking death of the most romantic mode of land transportation ever devised. Yet Paul Shue, whom you will meet often in this book, likes to quote David Morgan: “If any man has invented a mechanism with just fifty percent of the steam locomotive’s solid spiritual satisfaction, he hasn't applied for a patent yet.”

Steam engines are now part of the past. But, like fossils, they have left inerasable traces on our psyches and in our language. We speak of being “on the track” or “off the track,” of “making the grade.” An “engineer,” once exclusively in America someone who drove a train locomotive or engine, is now the operator of almost any piece of equipment. We who cannot remember steam locomotives still speak of going “full steam ahead.”

Yet railroads were and are metaphors of the future. Possibly nothing else characterizes modern man better than rapid transportation. The “saga of the iron horse” symbolized the change, progress, and novelty which the American dream has always embodied. An English lady, Mrs. Houston, in Hesperos, or Travels in the West, which was published in London in 1850, commented, “I really think there must be some natural affinity between Yankee ‘keep-moving’ nature and a locomotive engine.”

There were few accidents in the early years of railroading. Trains ran slowly, and there were not very many of them. For a long time they were not allowed to run at night or on Sundays. But nineteenthcentury America was more concerned with growth for its own sake than with quality of growth, and technology soon got ahead of itself. Railroad historians agree that in our haste to cover the land with a network of tracks for trains to transport goods and passengers quickly and cheaply, errors were made. Contractors built the railroads at a previously agreed price; the faster they could build and the less they could spend, the more money they could make. Track was laid hastily and carelessly, by whatever labor could be got cheap. Often roadbeds were poor, tracks flimsy, bridges unstable, grades steep, tunnels unshored. Timber and brush used as fill did not last for long.

As for the trains themselves, early schedules were nightmarish, as each locality declared its own time and each railroad was a law unto itself. This situation invited collisions. The boilers on steam engines were poorly gauged, and were in constant danger of exploding. Add to this that crew members were no more infallible judges of the capacities of their machines than we are today infallible judges of our automobiles. Dispatchers too often sent out erroneous information, further compounding the possibility of accidents.

And so, as early as the I850s, accidents were becoming epidemic. Engines could go fast enough to be dangerous. Some tracks were twenty years old, and some bridges already rotten. Equipment and rights-of-way were poorly kept up. Switches were faulty. In mountainous country, landslides were an everpresent danger. Engineers often drove their engines too fast. Leon Beauvallet, a Frenchman touring the United States in I855, called the railroads “a miracle of headlong carelessness.” Tom Dixon, whose impress appears often in this book, recalls that traveling salesmen always tried to get berths in the middle of the middle car of a train, the spot farthest from a head-on crash or a rear-end collision.

The phenomenon of actually staging wrecks as a spectator sport emerged around the turn of the century. For example, at the official opening of Buckeye Park in Ohio on Memorial Day in 1896, an “immensely successful” train wreck was had on the Columbus, Hocking Valley and Toledo Railway, which drew, in spite of heavy rains, twenty thousand onlookers.


Now railroad men, take this warning:
Heed your orders well,
For how soon the Lord may call you,
No human tongue can tell.
“The Wreck of the Virginian No. 3,” Roy Harvey

The South, and especially Appalachia, responded to the inroads of industrialism as it had always responded to things, with music. Bill Malone, the Lomaxes, and other folklorists have observed that the rhythms of the railroad are evident in much southern popular music. Syncopation and counterpoint imitate the clicking of the drivers on the rails. “Breakdowns” possibly grew out of an imitation of train sounds. The beat, in blues, boogie-woogie, and jazz, behind all of the notes, echoes the sound of trains.

Among the thousands of American songs about railroads are the wreck songs I have always loved. As Shelley put it, “Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.“

What are these songs like?

As a body, they may comprise a sort of white folk epic. Their diction is “formulaic,” in Albert Lord’s term; they employ repeated “epic phrases” such as “receiving his train orders, he climbed in the cab to ride,” and “when I blow for____, they will surely know my call.” Norm Cohen, commenting on the concept of “plagiarism” in folk composition, points out that “there is nothing original in our words, but we expect groups of words to be original. The unit of creativity in a folk culture . . . is significantly larger than in a literary culture.” Wreck songs generally begin with calling the listener’s attention to the setting: “Just after the dawn of the morning”; “On a cold and dark cloudy evening”; “Far away on the banks of New River....” In effect these formulaic openings describe the background against which the action will occur.

The disastrous wrecks, in terms of lives lost, were generally not written about. Mass tragedy has probably never been as interesting as the death of one or two individuals.

In the years covered by these songs, Americans were looking for heroes. Literature is made, I believe, in response to the question, “How is a good man to behave?” These songs of brave engineers provide at least some answers to that question. The action of a lone man caught under the reverse lever and scalded to death by steam is raised to a higher level: it is a symbolic story of a hero, representing all of us. Thus each song becomes a lesson in how we should act under stress, providing occasion for a warning of cosmic significance and an example of the fragility of man in the hands of a seemingly whimsical deity.

Brave, young, and true, the sung-about engineer certainly qualifies as a prototypical American epic hero. He was in the forefront of industrialism, running his machine that ran the world. He was also self-reliant, restless, and on the move. His engine was his sidekick, mistress, and wife—always “she.” His life of “rugged individualism” provided him unfettered access to new people, places, and things. And the railroad itself, an object of life familiar to everyone, is often seen as symbolic of eternal truths, as in “Life’s Railway to Heaven”:

You will roll up grades of trial;
you will cross the bridge of strife;
See that Christ is your conductor
on this lightning train of life . . .

James McCague, in the foreword to The Big Ivy, writes movingly of engineers; his sentiments are typical.

It used to be that whenever an old main line hogger was laid away, they'd time the ceremony so that [the train] would whistle a requiem in passing . . . and the smokestack would lay a rolling pall of smoke across the land, and the long mourning of the whistle and the rolling rumble of steel on steel would drown out the ministers last few words. And the mourners would be reminded then that their departing brother was one who had regularly, through most of the days of his life, lived on terms of easy intimacy with danger, surrounded by the thrashing pound of iron massively fashioned, breathing live steam, hurtling across the miles at his command faster than lesser men ever went their whole lives long.

It somehow set him apart. The machine age brought few enough heroes, and he was one, and if he had too often partaken of the fiery waters, to the detriment of his family’s happiness and the public peace ... If his conversation had been studded with casual blasphemies, his will had been stubborn beyond belief, and his temper habitually carried a short fuse . . . Well, what did all that amount to, against the fact that he had been a man among men?

This portrait points out an important fact: though he may have been badly flawed, an engineer was somehow magical. It may not be fair even to bring up accuracy when one is speaking of this type of literature. The raw truth is that most of the engineers who died in the songs in this book wasted their lives. Billy Richardson died because he was careless, Ed Webber because he did not heed sound advice. “Steve” Broady, F. C. Scheline, Harry Covington, and Homer Haskell all died because they ran their trains too fast.

Yet I think this did not much matter to those who loved these songs. Generally, as today, the facts were not important: the man was not required actually to be glamorous or heroic or even good, though it is certainly an American trait to heroize men who show “gumption.” The process of fiction was all that was needed in a headlong spurt of national growth that forced the country to create instant heroes in answer to the need for an identity. Even today we make heroes quickly and foolishly: James Dean and Elvis Presley should be examples enough. Almost always, in the songs that this book is about, the trainman is elevated to hero merely by the fact of his death. American ballad sentimentality thrives on stories of untimely death, and finds in the stories not just the excitement for its own sake that the Scots and British found in stories of disaster, but, as has been often noted, occasions for moralizing. Epics, being national models, are always concerned with the matter of order. A train wreck disrupts the natural order, yet offers an excuse to contemplate a man’s life in terms of justice and morality. I expect this is why the facts in wreck songs are not very important; the story is all. Pick Temple, folklorist and former television star, has written, “I think one of the things that attracts me philosophically to folk music is our innate belief that there is dignity in the least of us. Some might say, some dumb guy did one more stupid thing and lost his life. So what? Well, we in our country, at least, care about the loss of even a single life. We care enough to mourn the dead by singing the ballads that were inspired by the event.”

That the nineteenth century in this country was more concerned with growth than refinement is evident in the train wreck songs. Many are of appalling quality, often factually inaccurate, carelessly written, emotionally unrestrained, and literarily unsubtle. They have their share of the gore that was a journalistic commonplace of the American Victorian era. G. Malcolm Laws defends “the sincere tenderness of the stories,” and “America’s sympathy for the victims of tragedy,” yet he admits the songs are “not skillful,” but “the natural product of a people who respond generously whenever disaster strikes.” Of course, mediocrity has always been the norm in the popular, mass-market music field. Certainly the newspapers and magazines of this same period are full of the most appalling verses, on myriad subjects.

Predictably, the more popular a song became the less accurate it tended to be. Certainly, the earlier songs, the anonymous “Wreck of the F.F.V.” and “The Wreck of the Old 97,” are the most inaccurate of all. The folk process is, of course, a rather inglorious combination of “artistic” changes, forgetfulness, mishearing, illiteracy, and other factors. Later errors in the composed ballads must be laid at the doors of careless composers, like Andrew Jenkins. In both his ballads discussed in this book— “Ben Dewberry’s Final Run” and “The Wreck of the Royal Palm”—he has got the essential facts wrong or omitted important information. Cleburne Meeks, on the other hand, was as accurate as he could be, failing only in the ultimate interest of art. (In each of his songs discussed, the disaster is preceded by an imagined conversation which foreshadows the tragedy.) The songs written and recorded commercially, often within months or even weeks of a disaster, then distributed throughout the country, stayed pretty much the same as originally written.

Epics, often based on some distant event (like the Trojan War), are not necessarily true to history, but they are true to the ideas of order and morality. Similarly, moral tags adhere to the end of nearly all wreck songs, as they did in much nineteenthcentury American “fireside” poetry. The moral tags point to the uplifting side of the tragedies, the nobility of the human spirit, the American concern for our fellowmen, and our commitment to Christian belief.

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