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Jonathan Luther "John" "Casey" Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900) from Jackson, Tennessee, was an American railroader who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad (IC). As a boy, he lived near Cayce, Kentucky, where he acquired the nickname of "Cayce," which he chose to spell as "Casey." On April 30, 1900, he alone was killed when his passenger train, the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled 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 hero; he was immortalized in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper for the IC.
Jones married Mary Joanna ("Janie") Brady (born 1868), daughter of the owner of the boarding house where he was staying. Since she was Catholic, he decided to be baptized on November 11, 1886 at St. Bridget's Catholic Church in Whistler, Alabama, to please her. 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 raised their three children. By all accounts he was a devoted family man and teetotaler.
Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio RR and 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 the summer of 1887 a yellow fever epidemic struck many train crews on the neighboring Illinois Central Railroad, providing an unexpected opportunity for faster promotion of firemen on that line. On March 1, 1888, Jones switched to the Illinois Central, firing a freight locomotive between Jackson, Tennessee and Water Valley, Mississippi.
He was finally promoted to engineer, his lifelong goal, on February 23, 1891. Jones went on to reach the pinnacle of the railroad profession as a crack locomotive engineer for the Illinois Central.
Railroading was a talent, and Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best in the business. He was known for his insistence that he "get her there on the advertised" (time) and that he never "fall down": arrive at his destination behind schedule. He was so punctual, 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 stops for the Illinois Central Railroad, and he developed close ties with them between 1890 and 1900.
Jones was also famous for his peculiar skill with the train 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 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 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.
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 Jones 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 as an engineer in passenger service and he liked it.
At the fair (also called The Chicago World's Fair), 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, 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 himself. His request was approved, and No. 638 ran its first 589 miles with Jones at the throttle all the way to Water Valley. Jones 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. Jones 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 would drive it only one time. That was Engine No. 382, known affectionately as "Ole 382." The engine Jones drove the night of his fateful last ride was a steam-driven Rogers 4-6-0 "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 Jones' 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 Jones' 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. The book describes an incident that occurred sometime around 1895 as Jones’ 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 Jones to walk out on the running board to oil the relief valves. He advanced from the running board to the steam chest and then to the pilot beam to adjust the spark screen. He had finished well before they arrived at the station as planned and was returning to the cab when 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 at the sight of the oncoming iron horse. Jones shouted to Stevenson to reverse the train then told the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Realizing that she was still immobile, he quickly swung into action. He raced to the tip of the pilot or 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. The event was partially spoofed in The Brave Engineer, but involved rescuing a damsel from a cliché bandit.
Jones was an avid baseball fan and watched or participated in the game whenever his non-busy schedule allowed. During the 1880s he had played at Columbus, Kentucky, while he was a cub operator on the M & O. One Sunday during the summer of 1898 the Water Valley shop team was scheduled to play the Jackson shop team and Jones got to haul the team to Jackson for the game.
Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions in his career, with a total of 145 days suspended. However, in the year prior to his death Jones had not been cited for any rules infractions. Railroaders who worked with Jones 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. At the time, 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 of higher priority to pass. And the passenger trains No. 1 through No. 4 had priority over all other trains, except when one would meet the other.
Jones 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 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. It meant moving his family to Memphis and separation from his close friend John Wesley McKinnie and No. 638 as well, but Jones saw the move as a good one, and had bid for and got the job. Jones would drive Hatfield's Engine No. 384 until the night of his fateful last ride on Engine No. 382.
On April 29, 1900 Jones was at Poplar Street Station in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven the No. 2 from Canton (with his assigned Engine No. 384). Normally, Jones 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. Jones 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 would be 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, the weather was quite foggy that night (which reduced visibility), and the run was well known for its tricky curves. Both conditions would prove deadly later that night.
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 in 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 Jones from Memphis 100 miles south 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) Jones passed through the scene of a prior fatal accident from the previous November. Jones made his water stop at Sardis, then arrived at Grenada for more water, having made up 55 minutes of the 95 minute delay.
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) Jones 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 (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. Jones pulled out of Goodman, only five minutes behind schedule, and with 25 miles of fast track ahead Jones doubtless felt that he had a good chance to make it to Canton by 4:05 AM "on the advertised".
But unbeknownst to Casey, the stage was being set for the 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 Jones' path. As workers prepared a second saw by to let 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, Jones 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. He was only two minutes behind schedule about this time.
Jones 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 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). 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 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.
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.||”|
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 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. He 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.
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 Jones hit. According to the report he had gone back a distance of 3,000 feet where he had placed torpedos on the rail. He then continued north a further distance of 500 to 800 feet, where he stood and gave signals to Jones'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 Jones was "short flagged," but Newberry was an experienced man and he had flagged No. 25 a short time before. In the report Fireman 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 Jones. But 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 Webb did see the flagman at this point, he had to be out of position at about 3,000 feet north of the switch, not 3,500–3,800 feet north as stated in the report, which means Jones 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 Jones arrived. He then headed north along the tracks and placed the torpedoes, but by then Jones may have come roaring out of the fog before he made it to his reported position. If this is what happened, Jones 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 Jones'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 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 initially estimated as follows:
An update indicated an additional $327.50 in property damage ($102.50 in track damage, $100.00 for freight, and $125.00 in wrecking expense) plus a settlement of $1.00 to Mrs. Breaux for her injuries. Mrs. Deto was identified as the spouse of an Illinois Central engineer, and in the update her claim for injuries was still unsettled.
Surprisingly, there are no clearly authentic photographs of the famous wreck in existence.
There has been some controversy about exactly how Jones died. Massena Jones (former postmaster of Vaughan and director of the now-closed museum there), said "When they found Jones, according to Uncle Will Madison (a section hand who helped remove Jones' 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."
For at least 10 years after the wreck, the imprint of Jones' 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 seemed to follow it. During its 37 years of service, "Ole 382" was involved in accidents that took 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.
Jones' beloved Engine No. 638 was sold to the Mexican government in 1921 and still ran there in the 1940s.
Jones' African-American fireman, Simeon T. Webb (born May 12, 1874), died in Memphis on July 13, 1957 (http://condrenrails.com/MRP/Other-Passenger-Stations/Poplar_Avenue_Station.htm states he dies on the 15th) at the age of 83. Jones' wife, Janie Brady Jones (born October 29, 1866), died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson at the age of 92. At the time of Jones' 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.
Jones' wife received $3,000 in insurance payments (Jones was "doubleheading" as a member of two unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, and had a $1,500 policy with each union) and later settled with the Illinois Central for an additional $2,650 (Earl Brewer, a Water Valley attorney who would later serve as Governor of Mississippi, represented her in the settlement). Other than these payments Mrs. Jones received nothing as a result of the wreck or Jones' service with the railroad, as the Railroad Retirement Fund was not established until 1937.
Jones' tombstone in Jackson's Mount Calvary Cemetery gives his birth year as 1864, but according to information his mother wrote in the family Bible, 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.
Casey Jones's fame can almost certainly be attributed to the traditional song, The Ballad of Casey Jones, recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, Furry Lewis, The Grateful Dead, and Johnny Cash, among others.
Songs titled Casey Jones, usually about the crash or the driver, have been recorded by Vernon Dalhart (Edison Disc recorded June 16, 1925), This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, Feverfew (Blueboy (band)), Tom Russell, Leonid Utyosov, Billy Murray, The New Christy Minstrels, and Skillet Lickers. A well-known song by The Grateful Dead was written by lyricist Robert Hunter and guitarist Jerry Garcia in 1969.
Other songs about or related to Jones or the crash include:
AUDIO T.Webb "The Story of Engineer Casey Jones' Last trip In 1900" 78rp (SIM un-numbered) rec.c.1952 (7'50")