Casey Jones

Casey Jones

John Luther "Casey" Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900) was an American railroad engineer from Jackson, Tennessee who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad (IC). On April 30, 1900 he alone was killed when his passenger train collided with a stopped freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi on a foggy and rainy night. His dramatic death trying to stop his train and save lives made him a railroad icon who became immortalized in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper for the IC. Due to the enduring popularity of this classic song, he has been the world's most famous railroad engineer for over a century.

Youth and career

John Luther "Casey" Jones was born March 14, 1863 in southeast Missouri to country school teacher Frank Jones and his wife Anne. His exact place of birth is unknown. He was the first of five children. In 1876 his family moved to the small community of Cayce, Kentucky, which is how he eventually got his nickname. As a boy he developed a growing obsession with trains from hanging around the bustling train depot there. In 1878, at the age of 15, he went to work for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad as a telegrapher in nearby Columbus, Kentucky. Casey grew to be quite tall for his day at 6’4 1/2" with dark hair, gray eyes, and a slim build. His size and strength made him a natural for the often brutal work of railroad life. In 1884 he moved to Jackson, Tennessee, still in the employ of the M&O but now as a flagman. There he stayed at a boarding house for railroad men run by the mother of his future wife who worked there as well.

It was at the dinner table in this boarding house that John Luther Jones became "Casey" Jones.
Bose Lashley, a brakeman for the M&O, looked up from his plate one day and spoke to the gangly lad who had entered to be seated:

"What's your name, son?" he asked.

"John Luther Jones," the young man replied.

"Where are you from?"

"Cayce, Kentucky."

"Well, sit right down Cayce, and make yourself at home!" Lashley rejoined. [ The Historic Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, Tennessee] ]

It was common practice at the time for railroaders to give fellow railroaders nicknames to make it easier to tell them apart from others who shared the same name.Though Casey spelled his name "Cayce," his wife spelled it "Casey" in the letters she wrote, which became the accepted spelling of his name.

Dark-haired Mary Joanna "Janie" Brady, daughter of the owner of the boarding house, noticed Casey's remarkable appetite and the way he blushed whenever she flashed her smile at him.Casey soon fell in love with her and got up the courage to propose. They were married at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Jackson on November 25, 1886 and bought a house at 211 West Chester Street in Jackson where they set about raising three children. By all accounts he was a devoted family man and teetotaler.

Casey performed well and was promoted to brakeman on the Columbus, Kentucky to Jackson, Tennessee route and then to fireman on the Jackson, Tennessee to Mobile, Alabama route.

In March 1888 he switched to the Illinois Central Railroad and was promoted to engineer, his lifelong goal, on February 23, 1891. Casey went on to reach the pinnacle of the railroad profession as a crack locomotive engineer for the I.C. Railroading was a natural talent, and Casey Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best in the business. He was known for his insistence that he always "get her there on the advertised" that is, that he would never be found to be "falling down" (behind schedule) when he arrived at his destination. He was so punctual that it was said that people set their watches by him. His work in Jackson primarily involved freight service between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi. Both locations were busy and important shops for the Illinois Central Railroad and he developed close ties with both between 1890 and 1900.

Casey was also famous for his peculiar skill with a locomotive whistle. His whistle was made of six thin tubes bound together, the shortest being half the length of the longest. Its unique sound involved a long-drawn-out note that began softly, rose and then died away to a whisper, a sound which 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 right-of-way between Jackson, Tennessee 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.

Casey strongly supported the principles of collective bargaining advanced by the young rail labor movementand his name first appears on the register book of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Division 99 at Water Valley, Mississippi, on March 10, 1891. He maintained membership in both the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (a practice known as "doubleheading") which resulted in his widow collecting life insurance settlements from both groups when he died. Not only did the brotherhoods strive to improve the pay and working conditions of the men, but their moral conduct as well. Casey sat as Master Pro Tem one night in 1898 when a brother was tried before the lodge on the charge of “alienating the affections of another brother’s wife.” [ Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley, Mississippi] ]

During the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, Illinois, in 1893 the I.C. was charged with providing commuter service for the thousands of visitors to the fairground. A call was sent out for trainmen who wished to work there and Casey answered it, spending a pleasant summer there with his wife. He shuttled many people from Van Buren Street to Jackson Park during the exposition. It was his first experience of passenger service and he liked it.

It was at the fair (also called The Chicago World's Fair), that he became acquainted with No. 638, a big new freight engine the I.C. had on display there as the latest and greatest technological advancement in trains. It had eight drive wheels and two pilot wheels. At the closing of the fair No. 638 was due to be sent to Water Valley for service in the Jackson District. Casey asked for permission to run the engine back to Water Valley himself. His request was approved, and No. 638 ran its first 589 miles with Casey at the throttle all the way to Water Valley. Casey liked No. 638 and especially liked working in the Jackson District because his family was in Jackson. They had once moved to Water Valley but Jackson was really home to the Jones family. Casey drove the engine until he transferred to Memphis in February 1900. No. 638 stayed in Water Valley. That year he would drive the engine that became most closely associated with him through tragic circumstances. And he actually drove it only one time. That was Engine No. 382, known affectionately as "Ole 382." The engine Casey drove the night of his fateful last ride was a steam-driven Rogers Ten Wheeler with six drivers, each approximately six feet high. Bought new in 1898 from the Rogers Locomotive Works, it was a very powerful engine for the time. When a potential disaster arose, all of Casey's skill and its responsiveness would be put to the greatest test.

His regular fireman on No. 638 was his close friend, John Wesley McKinnie, with whom he worked exclusively from about 1897 until he went to the passenger run out of Memphis with his next and last fireman, Sim Webb in 1900.

A little known example of Casey's heroic instincts in action is described by his biographer and friend Fred J. Lee in his 1939 book "Casey Jones: Epic of the American Railroad" (Southern Publishers, Inc.). In Chapter 35, entitled "The Rescue," is described an incident that occurred sometime around 1895 as Casey's train approached Michigan City, Mississippi. He had left the cab in charge of fellow Engineer Bob Stevenson who had reduced speed sufficiently to make it safe for Casey to walk out on the running board to quickly oil the relief valves. He then moved from the running board to the steam chest and then to the pilot beam to adjust the spark screen which he hoped to complete and return to the cab before they arrived in town. As he finished and was returning he noticed a group of small children dart in front of the train some sixty yards ahead. All cleared the rails easily except for a little girl who suddenly froze in fear on the tracks at the sight of the oncoming iron horse. Casey yelled to Stevenson to reverse the train and yelled to the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Realizing that the girl was still immobile, he quickly swung into action. He raced to the pilot (commonly called the "cowcatcher") and braced himself on it as he reached out as far as he could to pull the frightened but unharmed girl from the rails.

Casey was an avid baseball fan and watched or participated in the game whenever his busy schedule allowed. During the 1880s he had played at Columbus, Kentucky, while he was a cub operator on the M & O. And one Sunday during the summer of 1898 the Water Valley shop team was scheduled to play the Jackson shop team and Casey got to haul the team to Jackson for the game.

Casey was issued 9 citations for rules infractions in his career, with a total of 145 days suspended. Railroaders who worked with Casey liked him but admitted that he was a bit of a chance taker. Unofficially though, the penalties were far more severe for running behind than breaking the rules. He was by all accounts an ambitious engineer, eager to move up the seniority ranks and serve on the better paying, more prestigious passenger trains. Passenger trains took priority on the rails. A passenger train never had to "go in the hole" for a freight train to pass. The only time a passenger train ever went to a side track or "passing track" was to allow another passenger train to pass. [ Casey Jones Railroad Museum State Park in Vaughan, Mississippi] ]

Casey soon 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 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. It meant moving his family to Memphis and separation from his close friend John Wesley McKinnie and No. 638 as well, but Casey saw the move as a good one and had bid for and got the job. Casey would drive Hatfield's Engine No. 384 until the night of his fateful last ride on Engine No. 382.


On April 29, 1900 Casey was at Poplar Street Station in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven the northbound No. 2 from Canton, when he agreed to take the southbound No. 1 because the scheduled engineer Sam Tate had called in sick with cramps. Tate apparently held the regular run of trains No. 1 (south) and No. 4 (north) with his assigned Engine No. 382. Train No.1 was known as "The New Orleans Special," later to become the famous "City of New Orleans." Headed north, No. 4 was called "The New Orleans Fast Mail." Odd numbered trains were southbound, and even numbered ones were northbound.

On this fateful night, Casey had returned with his assigned Engine No. 384 and was asked to “double back south” on Tate’s run on No. 1 with Engine No. 382 to Canton. Had Tate not been sick, Casey would have made the run back the next day after a layover. But he loved challenges and once again was determined to "get her there on the advertised" no matter how difficult it looked.

A fast engine, a good fireman, and a light train were ideal for a record-setting run of the 188 miles from Memphis to Canton. And even though it was raining, steam trains operated best in damp conditions. But it was also quite foggy that night, which reduced visibility. And the run was well-known for its tricky curves, which could prove deadly.

With Fireman Sim Webb shoveling on coal and Casey pouring on steam they left Memphis with 6 cars at 12:50 am, 95 minutes behind schedule. The first section of the run would take Casey to Grenada, Mississippi, 102 miles south over a new section of light and shaky rails at speeds up to 80 mph. At Senatobia, Mississippi he passed through the scene of the deaths of a fellow engineer and fireman in an accident that occurred the previous November. Upon reaching Grenada he was only 40 minutes behind schedule and took on water. It was 23 miles from Grenada to Winona, Mississippi and Casey made up another 15 minutes. By the time he got to Durant, Mississippi, 55 miles south, he 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 he received new orders to take to the siding at Goodman, Mississippi and wait for the No. 2 passenger train to pass, and then continue on to Vaughan.

Casey did as he was instructed and arrived at Goodman to take the siding. His orders also instructed him that he was to meet northbound passenger train No. 26 at Vaughan, but No. 26 was a local passenger train in two sections and would be in the siding so he would have priority over it. He pulled out of Goodman only five minutes behind. With 27 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 the stage was being set for a tragic wreck at Vaughan, 15 miles away. The stopped double-header freight train No. 83 (located to the north and headed south) and the stopped 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 there were more cars than the track could hold, forcing some of them to overlap onto the main line above the north end of the switch. The northbound local passenger train No. 26 had arrived from Canton earlier which had required a “saw by” in order for it to get to the “house track” west of the main line. The saw by maneuver for No. 26 required that No. 83 back up and allow No. 72 to move northward and pull its overlapping cars off the south end, allowing No. 26 to gain access to the house track. But this left four cars overlapping above the north end of the switch and on the main line right in Casey’s Path. As a second saw by was being prepared to let Casey 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 travelling excessively fast, possibly up to 75 miles per hour toward Vaughan, unaware of the danger ahead as he was traveling through a 1.5-mile left-hand curve which blocked his view. Sim'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 Casey. Casey quickly yelled back "Jump Sim, jump!" to Sim, 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 Casey apparently tried to warn anyone still in the stopped freight train looming ahead. Sadly, Casey was only two minutes behind schedule about 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. He 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 stayed on board to slow the train, he doubtless saved the passengers from serious injury and death (Casey himself was the only fatality of the collision). His watch was found to be stopped at the time of impact which was 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 the brake. A stretcher was brought from the baggage car on No. 1 and crewmen of the other trains carried his body to the depot ½-mile away.

The headlines in the Jackson, Tennessee Sun read: "FATAL WRECK - Engineer Casey Jones, of This City, Killed Near Canton, Miss. - DENSE FOG THE DIRECT CAUSE - Of a Rear End Collision on the Illinois Central. - Fireman and Messenger Injured - Passenger Train Crashed Into a Local Freight Partly on the Siding-Several Cars Demolished."

A Jackson, Mississippi newspaper report detailed the accident this way:"The south-bound passenger train No. 1 was running under a full head of steam when it crashed into the rear end of a caboose and three freight cars which were standing on the main track, the other portion of the train being on a sidetrack. The caboose and two of the cars were smashed to pieces, the engine left the rails and plowed into an embankment, where it overturned and was completely wrecked, the baggage and mail coaches also being thrown from the track and badly damaged. The engineer was killed outright by the concussion. His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous." Casey's 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 Casey's 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 an 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's 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. Burial was in Mount Calvary Cemetery. Fifteen enginemen rode 118 miles from Water Valley to pay their last respects, which was something of a record.

A conductor's report filed just five hours after the accident stated "Engineer on No.1 failed to answer flagman who was out proper distance. It is supposed did not see the flag." This was the position the I.C. would later take in its official reports.

The final I.C. accident report was released on July 13, 1900 by A.S. Sullivan, General Superintendent of the I.C., and stated that "Engineer Jones was solely responsible having disregarded the signals given by Flagman Newberry." John M. Newberry was the flagman on the southbound No. 83 that Casey hit. According to the report he had gone back a distance of 3,000 feet where he had placed torpedoes on the rail. He then continued north a further distance of 500 to 800 feet, where he stood and gave signals to Casey's train No.1. But doubt still lingers about the official findings and some wonder where Newberry was positioned that night. Some feel he wasn’t there at all. Some say Casey was "short flagged," but Newberry was an experienced man and he had flagged No. 25 a short time before. In the report Sim Webb states that he heard the torpedo explode, then went to the gangway on the engineer's side and saw the flagman with the red and white lights standing alongside the tracks. Going then to the fireman's side, he saw the markers of the caboose of No. 83 and yelled to Casey. It would have been impossible for him to have seen the flagman if the flagman had been positioned 500-800 feet before the torpedoes as the report says he was. Once the torpedoes exploded the train would have already been too far past the flagman’s reported position for him to be visible. So if Sim did see the flagman at this point, he had to be out of position at about 3,000 feet north of the switch, not 3500-3800 feet north as stated in the report, which means Casey was indeed "short flagged." It's possible that after the flagman flagged the No. 25 freight through, he heard the commotion as No. 72's air hose broke and everything got jammed up with No. 83 fouling the main line. He may have gone to No. 83 to find out what the situation was, assuming he had time before Casey arrived. He then headed north along the tracks and placed the torpedoes, but by then Casey may have come roaring out of the fog before he made it to his reported position. If this is what happened, Casey lost a good 500-800 feet of stopping distance, which might have prevented the collision. In any event, some railroad historians have disputed the official account over the years, finding it difficult if not impossible to believe that an engineer of Casey's experience would have ignored a flagman and fusees (flares) and torpedoes exploded on the rail to alert him to danger. Contrary to what the report claimed, shortly after the accident and until his death Fireman Sim Webb maintained that "We saw no flagman or fusees, we heard no torpedoes. Without any warning we plowed into that caboose."

The personal injury and physical damage costs of the wreck were as follows:

Simeon T. Webb, Fireman Train No. 1, body bruises from jumping off Engine 382- $5.00. Mrs. W. E. Breaux, passenger, 1472 Rocheblabe Street, New Orleans, slight bruises- Not settled. Mrs. Wm. Deto, passenger, No 25 East 33rd Street, Chicago, slight bruises left knee and left hand - Not settled. Wm. Miller, Express Messenger, injuries to back and left side, apparently slight - $25.00. W. L. Whiteside, Postal Clerk, jarred - $1.00. R. A. Ford, Postal Clerk, jarred - $1.00.

Engine No. 382 - $1,396.25.Mail car No. 51 - $610.00. Baggage car No. 217 - $105.00. Caboose No. 98119 - $430.00. I.C. box car 11380 - $400.00. I.C. box car 24116 - $55.00. Total - $2,996.25.

Surprisingly, there are no clearly authentic photographs of the famous wreck in existence.

There has been some controversy about exactly how Casey died. Massena Jones (former postmaster of Vaughan and director of the now closed museum there), said "When they found Casey, according to Uncle Will Madison (a section hand who helped remove Casey's body from the wreckage), he had a splinter of wood driven through his head. Now this is contrary to most of the stories, some of which say he had a bolt through his neck, some say he was crushed, some say he was scalded to death. But we have to go along with Uncle Will Madison. He was there, we were not."

For at least 10 years after the wreck, the imprint of Casey's engine was clearly visible in the embankment on the east side of the tracks about two-tenths of a mile north of Tucker's Creek, which is where the marker was located. The imprint of the headlight, boiler and the spokes of the wheels could be seen and people would ride up on handcars to view the traces of the famous wreck. Corn that was scattered by the wreck grew for years afterward in the surrounding fields.

The wrecked 382 was brought to the Water Valley shop and rebuilt "just as it had come from the Rogers Locomotive Works in 1898," according to Bruce Gurner. It was soon back in service on the same run with Engineer Harry A. "Dad" Norton in charge. But bad luck would follow it in the future. During its 37 years of service "Ole 382" was involved in accidents which would take 6 lives before it was retired in July 1935. During its career, the 382 was renumbered 212, 2012, and 5012.

January 1903: criminal train wreckers caused 382 to wreck, nearly demolishing the locomotive. Norton's legs were broken and he was badly scalded. His fireman died 3 days later.

September 1905: Norton and the 382 turned over in the Memphis South Yards. This time, however, the train was moving slowly and Norton was uninjured.

January 22, 1912: 382 (now numbered 2012) was involved in a wreck that killed 4 prominent railroad men and injured several others. It is called the Kinmundy Wreck as it happened near Kinmundy, Illinois. An engineer by the name of Strude was driving this time.

Casey's old Engine No. 638 was sold to the Mexican government in 1921 and was still running there in the 1940s.

Casey's African American fireman, Simeon T. Webb (born May 12,1874), died in Memphis on July 13,1957 at the age of 83. Casey's wife, Janie Brady Jones (born October 29,1866), died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson at the age of 92. At the time of Casey's death at age 37, his son Charles was 12, his daughter Helen was 10 and his youngest son John Lloyd (known as "Casey Junior") was 4.

Casey's wife said she never had any thought of remarrying. [ cite news| title=Widow of Casey Jones Is Dead at 92; "haunted' by Ballad of Famed Engineer| pages=21| publisher=New York Times at ProQuest Historical Newspapers| date=1958-11-22| accessdate=2006-08-15|] She wore black nearly every day for the rest of her life.

Casey's tombstone in Jackson's Mount Calvary Cemetery gives his birth year as 1864 but according to information written in the family Bible by his mother he was born in 1863. The tombstone was donated in 1947 by two out-of-town railroad enthusiasts who accidentally got his birth year wrong. Until then, a simple wooden cross had marked his grave.

Songs about Casey Jones

* The Ballad of Casey Jones - The fame of Casey Jones can almost certainly be attributed to this traditional ballad recorded by Mississippi John Hurt
* Casey Jones - The Grateful Dead performed not only The Ballad of Casey Jones, but in 1969, lyricist Robert Hunter and guitarist Jerry Garcia teamed up to write "Casey Jones," which was first released on their "Workingman's Dead" album in 1970.
* April the 14th (Part 1) - Gillian Welch from Revelator
* Ruination day - Gillian Welch
* Whats Next to The Moon - AC/DC
* To the Dogs or Whoever - Josh Ritter from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
* Casey Jones - This Bike is a Pipe Bomb
* Casey Jones the Union Scab- Joe Hill
* Casey Jones - North Mississippi Allstars
* Casey Jones - Pete Seeger --- A tune about Casey Jones breaking a picket line of railroad engineers

Museums in Casey Jones's honor

* [ The Historic Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, Tennessee]
* [ Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum in Water Valley, Mississippi]
* [ Casey Jones Railroad Museum State Park in Vaughan, Mississippi] Museum Closed in 2004


External links

* [ Ballad of Casey Jones]
* [ Casey Jones on Find-A-Grave]
* [ Casey Jones - The Real Story]
* [ Casey Jones -- The Union Scab] by Joe Hill, lyrics and audio

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