Casey Jones is a genuine American folk hero, up there with Paul Bunion, Pecos Bill, John Henry, and other characters famed for the work they did. Most people are familiar with the most famous of more than a dozen songs about him, or can remember the Walt Disney cartoon of about the Brave Engineer. Those of us of a certain age and keen memory can even remember an old TV show with Alan Hale, Jr.—that right the dude later to become famous as the Captain on Gilligan’s Island—as the man himself. Unlike many of those other heroes, however, there was a very real Casey Jones who did die heroically in a crash saving the lives of his train crew and passengers in the process.
John Luther Jones was born in 1863 at Jackson, Tennessee. He grew up in Cayce, Kentucky in the far western corner of the state near where the Ohio River emptied into the Mississippi.
As a young man he went to work on the Mobile & Ohio Rail Road beginning with the most menial laboring jobs around the switching yards and on track maintenance. An earnest young man and hard worker, he was quickly promoted to train crew as a brakeman on a Columbus, Kentucky, to Jackson, Tennessee route, and then to fireman on the Jackson to Mobile, Alabama run. Like other railroaders with common names, he fellow workers took to calling him after his hometown. He adopted the familiar spelling of Casey and went by that moniker the rest of his life.
During those years he charmed the daughter of his boarding house landlady. Janey Brady was an Irish Catholic and to please her family he converted to their faith. The couple was famously devoted to one another and happily raised three children as Casey moved up the railroad career ladder. He was modest, a fine story teller, and popular with all of the crews, even though he was the rarest of all breeds among working people—a sworn teetotaler.
In 1887 a yellow fever epidemic devastated train crews for the larger and more prestigious Illinois Central, and Casey moved to take a birth there as a fireman on the Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi leg. Casey’s family settled in Jackson, the moved for a while to Water Valley.
In 1891 Jones finally achieved his dream of becoming an engineer. He was soon one of the most highly regarded men on the system. He was noted for being a hard charger and exceptionally dedicated to keeping to schedule, “come hell or high water.” He sometimes took chances in his determination to “git ‘er there on time,” and was occasionally suspended for work rule violations. But so were most other “aggressive” engineers and failure to keep schedule was far more damaging to a career.
His skill and prestige as an engineer was recognized by the IC in 1893 when they moved him to Chicago to work passenger shuttles to the World Columbian Exposition. It was a great assignment and both he and his family enjoyed their time in the big city and at the fair. The stint working passenger services whetted his appetite to regularly be assigned to passenger trains, where his thirst for punctuality would be exceptionally valued.
When the Fair ended Casey volunteered to take the railroad’s newest engine, No. 638, which had been an exhibit at the fair, back to Water Valley to be put into service. He got the plum assignment of its regular engineer with his long time best friend and fireman John Wesley McKinnie.
In 1895 Casey got his first taste of more than local fame for a legendary rescue, which later became fodder of dime novels and silent movie adventures. A relief engineer was at the controls one day when Casey climbed out of the cab to oil the relief valves and perform other maintenance. He climbed on the pilot—the small two front wheels supporting the “cow catcher—in order to adjust a spark screen on the funnel. After making a blind turn Casey spotted a group of children playing on the tracks. He signaled to the engineer in the cab to blast the whistle in warning. The children scattered except for one young girl who froze in terror on the tracks. Yelling to the cab to reverse engine and throw on the brakes, Casey climbed to the very front of the pilot. The train was slowing but could not stop. Holding on with one hand reached out and scooped up the frightened child with the other arm. Newspapers all over the South and Midwest picked up the story.
Casey was also unusual in that he seemed to have genuine respect and admiration for Black workers in the shops, yards, and on the train crews. As far as he was able as a Southern White man of the period he struck up genuine friendships with many and the affection and esteem was returned.
When Casey finally got his shot at regular passenger service in February of 1890 out Memphis, Tennessee, for the run to Canton, Mississippi at the controls of Old No. 384 his new fireman, Simeon T. Webb was a black man. Casey regularly had run #2 of a four leg cannonball special between Chicago and New Orleans.
On April 29, 1900 Jones finished his regular run in Memphis. Ordinarily he would have laid overnight there and returned south with his engine the next day. But the engineer assigned to the next southbound run was ill and Casey was asked to take his place.
It was after midnight the next morning when Casey and Webb climbed into the cab of unfamiliar No. 382. There was a steady rain and there would be patch fog along the route. They pulled out of the station with a light eight car train an hour and a half behind schedule. Casey told everyone that he could make up the time and pull into Canton on schedule at 4:05 am.
True to his word, Casey was rapidly making up time. By the time he reached Durant, Mississippi he was almost on time. He jokingly told his pal in the cab, “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight.” He was in a euphoric mood.
But trouble lay ahead. Two freight trains were pulled onto the siding at Vaughn to allow passenger service to pass. But they were too long and four cars of one of the trains remained on the track. Procedure was to execute a “saw.” The lead train facing the oncoming passenger train would clear the track to let it pass. A flagman would put out a torpedo (an explosive warning) on the track and physically flag the oncoming train to a stop after it cleared the switch so the trains on the siding could back off the mainline ahead. A few moments earlier a local passenger train had successfully completed the maneuver.
Neither Jones nor his fireman ever heard a warning torpedo of saw a flagman. When the engine emerged around a blind curve at 75 mile an hour, Webb finally spotted the obstruction on the track ahead through the rain. He yelled to Jones, who realized he did not have time to come to a complete stop.
Casey ordered Web to jump then he laid on the whistle to give warning while throwing the drivers into reverse and putting on the air brakes. By staying at the controls Casey was able to reduce speed to about 35 miles per hour before slamming into the caboose of the freight ahead. The engine plowed through the caboose and three cars. But the whistle blast had given the freight crew time to jump free and the reduced speed confined the damage to the engine and cab. Passenger in the rear felt a jarring bump, but their cars stayed on the track and none were injured.
Webb scrambled to the wreck and joined rescuers trying to get to Jones. Reports were that he still had his hand on the brake lever and whistle cord. Various causes of death were reported, but Webb swore that a splinter of wood driven into the engineer’s skull is what killed him.
Casey Jones was immediately hailed as a hero for straying at the controls and saving his passengers. News paper widely reported the accident and the fate of the Brave Engineer. Jones’s body was taken to Jackson where a funeral mass was held at the Catholic church where he and Janie had been married 14 years earlier. In addition to railroaders on his last runs out of Memphis, 15 trainmen came the 115 miles from Water Valley to pay their last respect to their fallen comrade.
Despite all of the adulation, the Illinois Central officially blamed the wreck on Jones saying that he was running too fast for conditions and failed to heed the warning of the experienced flagman. Most railroaders, however, believe the flagman was out of position because he did not believe that the cannonball on the mainline would make up enough time to come in close on the heels of the local.
Whatever the verdict of the railroad, in the eyes of his fellow trainmen and the public, Casey Jones was a true hero.
Within months a close friend, a black oil wiper from the Water Valley yards, Wallace Saunders, created the Ballad of Casey Jones with which we are familiar from childhood school songbooks. It was the most popular song written about the engineer and the wreck but in the first years there were nearly a dozen others. By 1915 the song was so well known that IWW song writer Joe Hill wrote a parody for the Little Red Songbook, Casey Jones the Union Scab. Decades later the Grateful Dead would associate the straight arrow engineer with being “high on cocaine.”
Janey Jones lived on until 1956 when she died at the age of 96. She never remarried and wore black mourning for her beloved husband the rest of her life.