This Week in Railroad History: The Legend of Casey Jones
Everyone loves a good story, especially when they are true. But true tales sometimes morph overtime to make their characters seem larger than life. One simple act can have a profound effect on many people’s lives and turn an ordinary person into a legend. So, goes it with the following character.
Most of us have heard the name, Casey Jones. He is immortalized in various stories and song ballads, there was even a television show in the late 50s dedicated to his exploits. Jones is best known as the engineer who rose through the ranks and was cut down in his prime when his train crashed in 1900.
John Luther Jones was born on March 14, 1863, or 1864 (records are sketchy for this location and period in history) in Missouri to Frank and Anne Nolan Jones. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Cayce, Kentucky. The name of this childhood town would one day serve as the nickname for the man who would go from John Luther Jones to Casey Jones.
Casey’s fascination with the railroad started as a child when he would watch the trains rumble down the tracks not far from his house. He dreamed of someday operating a great engine and being like his heroes who drove these massive marvels and were highly respected and praised for their work. At the age of 15, Jones struck out on his own— like most teenagers of the day —and moved to Columbus, Kentucky, where he found employment on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, first as a laborer, then as a telegrapher. From all knowledgeable resources, Casey was quite good as a telegrapher, but he wanted to be where the action was. He did not want to be left at the station while those powerful iron horses rolled down the tracks. Casey wanted to be the one at the controls, so he left work as a telegrapher and moved up to flagman and then brakeman, which required him to move again, this time to Jackson, Tennessee, where something else, other than the railroad, would cross his tracks.
While living at the boarding house in Jackson, Casey Jones fell in love with the manager’s daughter, Joanne Brady, known as Janie. The two were married on November 25, 1886 and would go on have two sons and one daughter together. Casey was a good husband and father. When not out on the line, he spent his time at home. With a strong desire to support his young family Casey wanted nothing more than to move up the ranks.
Taking a job as a fireman, the number two position in the cab of a great locomotive, Casey continued to excel. The work was hot, dirty, and laborious as he shoveled tons of coal to feed the firebox and make the steam that would propel the locomotive forward as it pulled freight or passengers.
In 1887, amid a yellow fever epidemic, there was a need to fill positions on the railroad, and Jones continued to advance. It was long until he realized his dream. Promoted to an engineer, he worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, hauling freight between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi. Even though he had achieved his goal of becoming an engineer, Jones wanted more. He wanted to be recognized when he passed through so he modified the whistle on his engine to make a sort of whippoorwill call that when sounded would be reminiscent of his name, Cayyyyy-Ceeeee.
Casey longed to be an engineer on the passenger circuit, which was the most prestigious and highest-paid position for an engineer. To ensure he would get promoted, Casey knew his trains needed to be on time. The railroads promoted efficiency, and often pushed the crews to meet deadlines, even if it meant breaking the speed limit a little. By all accounts, Casey loved to go fast. There were many times he went a little too fast, and a few reprimands were put into his file. Speeding tickets aside, Jones was an excellent engineer. So good that he was asked to operate trains for the Illinois Central at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, taking passengers in and out of the exhibition.
At the World’s Fair, he became acquainted with No. 638, a big new freight engine the Illinois Central had on display as the latest and greatest technological advancement in trains. It had eight drive wheels and two pilot wheels, a 2-8-0 consolidation type. At the closing of the fair, No. 638 was due to be sent to Water Valley for service in the Jackson District. Jones asked for permission to drive the engine back to Water Valley. At the time this was unheard of. It was unheard of for engineers to request to operate a specific locomotive, especially not as a junior engineer. But Casey was determined and he put in his request in to serve as the engineer who would operate No. 638 on its journey from the World’s Faire to Water Valley. The request was granted and No. 638 ran its first 589 miles with Jones at the throttle.
As time when on, Casey’s legend grew. Allegedly, in 1895, Jones was rolling down the tracks and saw some children playing on them. He blew his unmistakable whistle to warn the children to clear, of which all but one did. A young girl froze in terror as the giant locomotive barreled down the rails toward her. Handing the controls over to his fireman, Casey walked on the running boards to the cowcatcher and, in the last seconds, scooped up the girl and returned her to safety.
In the early 1900, Jones transferred down to Memphis. He was assigned a reasonably new locomotive, no. 382 that pulled the Cannonball Express, named for it’s speed.
Jones loved to go fast. In fact, during his career, he was fined nine times and suspended from operating for a total of 145 days because of speeding violations. However, on the night of April 29, 1900, the railroad needed a man who had a heavy hand on the throttle. Casey Jones was just that man.
Coming off a run from Canton, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, Jones and his fireman, Sim Webb, were approached by the station agent. Instead of having an angry look on his face from Casey speeding, he had a worried look. The crew of the outgoing train called in sick, and now it was way behind. He asked Jones if he would take control of the train to deliver it on time. Jones agreed, on a couple of conditions, Webb would be his fireman, and he would use his locomotive.
Train No. 1 was pulled by engine 382. The train had six cars filled with passengers who were traveling on the Illinois Central’s mainline between Chicago and New Orleans. Casey Jones was responsible for the roughly 200-mile journey from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi. Jones believed that with a modern engine and a relatively light load, it would be possible to make up time and arrive in Canton close to on time. Jones pulled the train out of the Memphis station at 12:50 am on April 30, 1900. The weather was quite foggy that night, reducing visibility, and the run was well known for its tricky curves.
In the first section of the run, Jones drove from Memphis 100 miles south to Grenada, Mississippi— with an intermediate water stop at Sardi’s— over a new section of light and shaky rails at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour, some even say up to 100 miles per hour. At Senatobia, Jones passed through the scene of a prior fatal accident that had occurred the previous November, somehow foreshadowing what was to come later that morning. By the time Jones made his second water stop in Grenada, he’d made up 55 minutes of the 75-minute delay. Jones made up another 15 minutes in the 25-mile stretch from Grenada to Winona. The following 30-mile stretch to Durant had no speed-restricted curves. By the time he got to Durant, Jones was almost on time. He was quite happy, saying at one point, “Sim, the old girls got her dancing slippers on tonight!”
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 to Vaughan. Vaughn was 15 miles south of Goodman and 10 miles away from his destination. It looked as if the Cannonball would be on time.
Unknown to Jones and Webb, in Vaughn, three trains were sitting on the tracks. The position of the trains would make a saw by: where a train shoots on a wayside track extremely difficult if not impossible. Even worse, the air brakes on one of the trains had broken down, and the brakes were now stuck, making it difficult to move the train out of the way, leaving four cars on the track right in Jones’ path. The flagman at the station put torpedoes down on the tracks to warn any oncoming trains that there was an emergency ahead and that they would have to stop. Torpedoes are little cartridges that explode and make a loud bang when driven over as a warning for trains to stop in an emergency.
Now only two minutes behind schedule, Jones raced down the track towards Vaughn. As they approached, Sim Webb saw the red lanterns of the caboose at the end of the immobile train stuck on the tracks ahead and heard a loud popping sound as the torpedoes went off. Jone’s train was rushing down the slick tracks at 75 miles per hour; there would not be enough time to stop. “Oh, my Lord, there’s something on the mainline!” he yelled to Jones. Jones quickly yelled back, “Jump Sim, jump!” to Webb, who crouched down and jumped from the train, about 300 feet before impact, and was knocked unconscious by his fall. The last thing Webb heard as he jumped was the long, piercing scream of the whistle as Jones warned anyone still in the freight train looming ahead.
Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the air brakes into an emergency stop, but no. 382 quickly plowed through a wooden caboose, a carload of hay, another of corn, and halfway through a car of timber before leaving the track. He had reduced his speed from about 75 miles per hour to about 35 miles per hour when he hit. Because Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he was believed to have saved the passengers from serious injury and death. Jones was the only fatality of the collision. His 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, his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake.
In the aftermath, Jones became a legend who unselfishly gave his life so that everyone on his train would live. Casey Jones’s body was sent back to Jackson, Tennessee. A funeral mass was held on May 1, 1900, at St. Mary’s Church, where, fourteen years earlier, Casey had married Janie Brady. He is buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery. Hundreds of railroad men came from all around to attend the funeral and pay their last respects.
Shortly after Casey Jones’s death, Wallace Saunders, an engine wiper who worked for, I.E., wrote “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” a tribute to the man that Saunders greatly admired. It has been recorded, in some form or another, by various artists over the past century.
After the accident, the Illinois Central placed all blame on Casey Jones. His wife, Janie, received insurance payments from both the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, but this only amounted to $3000. She fought the Illinois Central in what would now be called a wrongful death suit and received a mere $2,650! She was represented by Earl Brewer, future Governor of Mississippi.
Janie Brady Jones lived for another 58 years, dying at the age of 92. She never remarried and wore black every day until her death. At the time of Jones’ death at age 36, his son Charles was 12, his daughter Helen was 10, and his youngest son John Lloyd, also known as Casey Jr., was 4. Today his home is part of a railroad museum and family entertainment complex that includes a railroad museum with artifacts about Jones and that fateful night.
The legend of Casey Jones continues to this day. Many old railroaders claim that because Casey died such a young age, that he still comes back for a ride now and then, especially in small towns where the railroads have shut down, or tracks have been torn up and converted to park trails. Late at night, if you listen very quietly, you can hear a train whistle off in the distance, a very distinct, unique train whistle. That is Casey Jones coming through for one last ride.
Written by Justin Lambrecht, education assistant