In 1903 a Southern Railway mail train number 97 suffered a significant accident. The train, while trying to make up for lost time due to delays on its run between Monroe, Va. and Spencer, N.C., jumped the tracks at a trestle near Danville, Va., killing most of the crew. (A mail train would carry a crew, not just for train operations, this being in the labor-intense time of feeding coal to the locomotive, but to work in the mail cars, processing and sorting mail.) The survivors, seven, jumped clear before the train went off the trestle, the remaining 11 of the crew falling to their fate along with the train.
Mail train 97 was notorious, up to that time, for never being late.
For whatever reason the accident captured public imagination, and led to a popular song, “The Wreck of the Old 97” which became one of, if not the, the first hit country music records. The song was done to the tune of a 1865 song, “The Ship That Never Returned.”
The song has since been covered by any number of country-music greats (and for that matter is one I like to sing). A parody of the song, one of several, about a chain on a bicycle breaking, also has some renown.
Speaking of parodies:
Oh they first started talking at an inter-gov meeting saying,
“Y’all, the budget’s too tight!
If we don’t work out this manner of funding,
for 911 we’ll be in a perfect mess of a tight.”
So they worked out the details and formed a committee, saying,
“Meet, and work through the numbers please!
Things are getting tighter, lest we pull an all-nighter
to get next year’s budget back from disease.
So they met and discussed it, and got a little farther,
but the devil’s, in the details.
Two said “Move it now” but the third one said “Now hold on”
And negotiations did commence to flail.
Spitballs got to flyin’ as old axe’s got to grinding,
and the horizon, moved farther away.
Two about the third one, and try to make its budget run
when they met the next time Tuesday.
Now all you good people, kindly take a warning
From this time now and learn,
It’s all conversation ‘til the ink goes to writing
Forget it and you’ll feel like you’re burned.
Most of the mail on the 97 train was lost in the post-crash fire. Interestingly, a case of canaries managed to survive the conflagration.
Canaries, other than being low-maintenance songbirds and popular as pets, are also used as a “Sentinel Species,” as it’s called, to warn of changing conditions in a given environment. Coal miners, well into the 20th Century, would carry canaries into coal mines to detect when carbon dioxide levels - always a hazard in the coal mining environment - reached dangerous levels.
Canaries have a much faster respiratory rate than humans. Coupled with the bird’s smaller lungs, it would succumb to the effects of poisoned air before its human handlers. If the canary was dead, in short, it was time to leave the mine until ventilation could be worked out. “Canary in a coal mine” is a popular term to refer to an entity which, should it fail, indicates growing dangers.
The Police had a hit song in the 80s, “Canary in a Coal Mine” - a sentence with enough poetic metaphor for three columns, at least, but that’s enough cross-cultural allegory for one week.