The ballad as we know it was written by Charles Noell of Greensboro, NC, shortened by Henry Whitter. Henry Whitter was a textile worker and hillbilly singer-guitarist-harmonicaman from Virginia who'd been singing this ballad for some 20 years before he first cut it. Based on the train accident in 1903 on the Southern Railway near Danville, Virginia, somewhere between Monroe and Spencer, causing the death of the conductor. Melody based upon The Ship That Never Returned by Henry Clay Work (the man who wrote Grandfather's Clock - see there). This success triggered the interest of other big record companies in hillbilly music (and country). On the other hand Whitter's success triggered his fellow musicians from Grayson & Carroll county, VA to have their own try in the record business: If Whitter can do it, everyone can! Makes for an amazing pile of train wreck songs through the years.
Vernon Dalhart [as Wreck Of The Old 97, with The Prisoner's Song on the B-side, the surprise hit that triggered the industry's interest in hillbilly music; also a David Graves George claimed to have written the original trainwreck song back when the accident occured; Whitter (our original) had sold his rights to Fred Hager's publishing company; so who wrote the Whitter's verses in Dalhart's hit? Noell or George? Robert Winslow Gordon, head of the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Culture (before the Lomaxes), concluded Dalhart used Whitter who in turn used Noell's lyrics; chemical analysis of the ink used by George excluded a turn of the century origin]
Paul Miles & The Red Fox Chasers [as Wreck On The Mountain Road; oldest trucker song]
Johnny Cash [as Wreck Of The Old 97]
Lonnie Donegan [idem]
Carolyn Hester [idem]
Kingston Trio [parody as M.T.A.; hit US]
John Mellencamp [version on the Rose & The Briar cd]
See also: M.T.A.