Jonathan Luther “John” “Casey” Jones was born March 14, 1863 in Tennessee.
As a boy his family moved to Cayce, Kentucky, where he acquired the nickname of “Cayce” which he chose to spell as “Casey.”
Casey went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he was brakeman on the Columbus, Kentucky to Jackson, Tennessee route. Soon, he was promoted to fireman on the Jackson, TN to Mobile, Alabama route.
By the summer of 1887, a yellow fever epidemic struck many train crews on the neighboring Illinois Central Railroad, providing an unexpected opportunity for jobs on that line.
On March 1, 1888, Casey took a job as fireman for the Illinois Central RR, firing a freight locomotive between Jackson, TN and Water Valley, Mississippi.
Then on February 23, 1891, Casey was finally promoted, fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a locomotive engineer for Illinois Central.
Casey built a reputation as being one of the best in the business. He became known for his insistence to “get her there on the advertised” (time) and that he never “fall down” (arrive behind schedule). He was so punctual that some people actually set their watches by his train.
Famous train whistle
Casey Jones also became famous for his peculiar skill with the train whistle. His train whistles unique sound involved a long-drawn-out note that began softly, rose and then died away to a whisper, a sound that became his trademark. The sound of it was variously described as “a sort of whippoorwill call,” or “like the war cry of a Viking.” People living along the Illinois Central between Jackson, TN and Water Valley, Mississippi, would turn over in their beds late at night upon hearing it and say “There goes Casey Jones” as he roared by.
Transfer to a “Cannonball” passenger train
Casey then got his chance for a regular passenger run. In February 1900, he was transferred from Jackson, Tennessee, to Memphis, Tennessee, for the passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi. This was one link of a four train run between Chicago, Illinois, and New Orleans, Louisiana, the so-called “cannonball” passenger run.
“Cannonball” was a contemporary term applied to fast mail and fast passenger trains of those days, but it was actually a generic term, much like we would use the word “rocket” today. This run offered the fastest schedules in the history of American railroading. Some veteran engineers doubted the times could be met and some quit.
Engineer Willard W. “Bill” Hatfield had transferred from Memphis back to a run out of Water Valley thus opening up trains No. 2 (north) and No. 3 (south) to another engineer.
For Casey, this meant moving his family to Memphis and separating from his close friend John Wesley McKinnie and No. 638, but Casey Jones viewed the move as a good one, bid for the job and got it.
Soon Casey Jones was driving Engine No. 384 until the night of his fateful last ride on Engine No. 382.
April 29, 1900
Casey Jones was at Poplar Street Station in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven the No. 2 from Canton (with his assigned Engine No. 384).
Normally, Casey would have stayed in Memphis on a layover; however, he was asked to take the No. 1 back to Canton, as the scheduled engineer (Sam Tate), who held the regular run of Trains No. 1 (known as “The Chicago & New Orleans Limited”, later to become the famous “Panama Limited”) and No. 4 (“The New Orleans Fast Mail”) with his assigned Engine No. 382, had called in sick with cramps.
Casey loved challenges and was determined to “get her there on the advertised” time no matter how difficult it looked.
A fast engine, a good fireman (Simeon T. Webb was the train’s assigned fireman), and a light train were ideal for a record-setting run.
Although it was raining, steam trains of that era operated best in damp conditions. However, that night it was also quite foggy (which reduced visibility). This specific run was also well known for its tricky curves. Both conditions, that Casey knew, were dangerous.
Normally the No. 1 would depart Memphis at 11:15 PM and arrive in Canton (188 miles to the south) at 4:05 AM the following morning. However, due to the delays with the change of engineers, the No. 1 (with six cars) did not leave Memphis until 12:50 am, 95 minutes behind schedule.
The first section of the run would take Casey and the Number One 100 miles south of Memphis to Grenada, Mississippi, with an intermediate water stop at Sardis, Mississippi (50 miles into the run), over a new section of light and shaky rails at speeds up to 80 mph (129 km/h).
At Senatobia, Mississippi (40 miles into the run), Casey passed through the scene of a prior fatal accident from the previous November. Casey made his water stop at Sardis, then arrived at Grenada for more water, having made up 55 minutes of his 95 minute delay.
Casey Jones made up another 15 minutes in the 25-mile stretch from Grenada to Winona, Mississippi. The following 30-mile stretch (Winona to Durant, Mississippi) had no speed-restricted curves. By the time he got to Durant (155 miles into the run) Casey was almost on time. He was quite happy, saying at one point “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!” as he leaned on the Johnson bar.
At Durant Casey received new orders to take to the siding at Goodman, Mississippi (eight miles south of Durant, and 163 miles into the run) and wait for the No. 2 passenger train to pass, and then continue on to Vaughan. His orders also instructed him that he was to meet passenger train No. 26 at Vaughan (15 miles south of Goodman, and 178 miles into the run); however, No. 26 was a local passenger train in two sections and would be in the siding, so he would have priority over it.
Number One pulled out of Goodman, only five minutes behind schedule, and with 25 miles of fast track ahead Casey doubtless felt that he had a good chance to make it to Canton by 4:05 AM “on the advertised”.
But unbeknown to Casey, the stage was being set for a tragic wreck at Vaughan.
Three separate trains were in the station at Vaughan: double-header freight train No. 83 (located to the north and headed south, which had been delayed due to having two drawbars pulled while at Vaughan) and long freight train No. 72 (located to the south and headed north) were both in the passing track to the east of the main line, but the combined length of the trains was ten cars longer than the length of the east passing track, and thus some of the cars were stopped on the main line.
The two sections of northbound local passenger train No. 26 had arrived from Canton earlier, and required a “saw by” for them to get to the “house track” west of the main line. The “saw by” maneuver required that No. 83 back up (onto the main line) to allow No. 72 to move northward and pull its overlapping cars off the main line and onto the east side track from the south switch, thus allowing the two sections of No. 26 to gain access to the west house track.
The “saw by”, however, left the rear cars of No. 83 overlapping above the north switch and on the main line – right in Casey Jones’ path.
As workers prepared a second saw by to let Casey Jones pass, an air hose broke on No. 72, locking its brakes and leaving the last four cars of No. 83 on the main line.
Meanwhile, Casey was almost back on schedule, running at about 75 miles per hour toward Vaughan, unaware of the danger ahead, since he was traveling through a 1.5-mile left-hand curve that blocked his view. Webb’s view from the left side of the train was better, and he was first to see the red lights of the caboose on the main line.
“Oh my Lord, there’s something on the main line!” he yelled to Jones.
Jones quickly yelled back “Jump Sim, jump!” to Webb, who crouched down and jumped about 300 feet before impact and was knocked unconscious. The last thing Webb heard when he jumped was the long, piercing scream of the whistle as Jones tried to warn anyone still in the freight train looming ahead.
Casey was only two minutes behind schedule at this time.
Casey reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but “Ole 382” quickly plowed through a wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the track.
Casey had amazingly reduced his speed from about 75 miles per hour to about 35 miles per hour when he impacted with a deafening crunch of steel against steel and splintering wood.
Because Casey Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he no doubt saved the passengers from serious injury and death (Jones himself was the only fatality of the collision).
Casey’s watch stopped at the time of impact: 3:52 AM on April 30, 1900.
Popular legend holds that when his body was pulled from the wreckage of his train near the twisted rail, his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake.
A stretcher was brought from the baggage car on No. 1, and crewmen of the other trains carried his body to the depot, a half-mile away.
Casey Jones’ legend was quickly fueled by headlines such as, “DEAD UNDER HIS CAB: THE SAD END OF ENGINEER CASEY JONES,” The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee; and “HEROIC ENGINEER – Sticks to his post at cost of life. Railroad Wreck at Vaughan’s on Illinois Central Railroad – Terrible Fatality Prevented by Engineer’s Loyalty to Duty – A passenger’s Story,” The Times-Democrat, New Orleans.
The passenger in the article was Adam Hauser, formerly a member of The Times-Democrat telegraph staff (New Orleans), who was in a sleeper on Jones’ southbound fast mail and made these (excerpted) comments after the wreck:
“The passengers did not suffer, and there was no panic.”
“I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still.”
“Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life.”
“The marvel and mystery is how Engineer Jones stopped that train. The railroad men themselves wondered at it and of course the uninitiated could not do less. But stop it he did. In a way that showed his complete mastery of his engine, as well as his sublime heroism. I imagine that the Vaughan wreck will be talked about in roundhouses, lunchrooms and cabooses for the next six months, not alone on the Illinois Central, but many other roads in Mississippi and Louisiana.”
The next morning Casey Jones’ body made the long trip back home to Jackson, Tennessee on passenger train No. 26.
On the following day the funeral service was held in St. Mary’s Church where he and Janie Brady had married fourteen years before.
Casey was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery. Fifteen enginemen rode 118 miles from Water Valley to pay their last respects, which was something of a record.
Casey Jones in music
Casey Jones’s fame can almost certainly be attributed to the traditional song, The Ballad of Casey Jones, first sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper for Illinois Central.
Soon after Casey’s death, Wallace Saunders began to sing and whistle as he went about his work cleaning the steam engines.
In the words of Casey’s widow, “Wallace’s admiration of Casey was little short of idolatry. He used to brag mightily about Mr. Jones even when Casey was only a freight engineer.”
The song Saunders sang he called “Jimmie Jones.”
But Saunders never had his original version copyrighted, and thus there is no way of knowing precisely what words he sang.
As railroaders stopped in Canton, Mississippi they would pick up the song and pass it along.
Soon it was a hit up and down the rail line.
But it was up to others with a profit motive to take it and rework it for a nationwide audience.
Illinois Central Engineer William Leighton appreciated the song’s potential enough to tell his brothers Frank Leighton and Bert Leighton, who were vaudeville performers, about it.
They took it and sang it in theaters around the country with a chorus they added. But apparently even they neglected to get it copyrighted.
Reportedly Saunders received a bottle of gin for the use of the song from the Leighton’s.
Nothing more was heard from Saunders and he passed into history as the man who helped to make Casey Jones an integral part of American folklore.
Finally, with vaudeville performer T. Lawrence Seibert credited with the lyrics and Eddie Newton the music, the song was published and offered for sale in 1909 with the title “Casey Jones, The Brave Engineer”.
As the intent was to entertain, it was hailed on the cover of the sheet music as the “Greatest Comedy Hit In Years” and “The Only Comedy Railroad Song.”
By World War I, dozens of versions had been published and millions of copies sold, securing the memory of a new American folk hero.
Poet Carl Sandburg called the song “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” the “greatest ballad ever written”.
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