TENNESSEE HISTORY Classroom
FULL HISTORY STORIES
The legend of Casey Jones
Train wrecks have always been a part of the American landscape,
but this one captured the essence of an era like no other. While
most were known for the number of people killed and the carnage
created by the wreck, this one took only one life and did little
damage by comparison. That one death, however, struck at the nations
heart and would launch an era in American folklore one
that would tell of the life and times of the American railroad
men and give birth to a Tennessee treasure we would come to know
as Casey Jones.
John Luther Jones was born March 14, 1863 in southeast Missouri.
While he was still a small child, the Jones family moved and settled
in Cayce, Kentucky where his father found work. The railroad was
an integral part of his youth and John Luther Jones was fascinated
with the trains.
As a rough and tumble boy growing up in Kentucky, John Luther
Jones picked up the nickname "Cayce" from his hometown,
which he would always spell in later years as Casey. He was tall
for his day at 64" with dark hair, gray eyes, and a
slim build. His size and strength, however, made him a natural
for the often brutal work of railroad life.
When he was 25-years-old, "Casey" Jones took a job with
the Illinois Central Railroad as a fireman. The job meant him
moving to the city of Jackson, Tenn. where he met and fell in
love with a local girl named Janie Brady. The two settled in the
city, bought a home with the stereotypical white-picket fence,
and began raising a family.
In 1888, the couple had a son named Charles. A daughter would
follow four years later and a third child was born in 1896.
During this time, Casey Jones had settled into his job and earned
a promotion to Engineer. He quickly became one of the most popular
engineers on the railroad. He was described by those who worked
with him as a colorful character who knew his job inside and out.
One of his trademarks was his ability to manipulate the steam
whistle on the engines he drove. When other railroaders would
hear the distinctive melodies, they would immediately know it
was Casey Jones in the engine.
In the 1890s, railroad companies were regarded as part of the
American epic of western settlement and the profits made by them
were huge as were the responsibilities to keep America running
on time. They prided themselves on punctuality and engineers who
knew the train engines well enough to keep the schedule. While
this often meant pushing an engine to its limit, many railroad
executives would "look the other way" and disregard
passenger complaints so long as the train kept its schedule and
brought everyone in safely.
America had quickly become a nation whose economic and social
survival depended on the railroad. In addition to their service
value, they were also considered one of the nations biggest
employers. Railroad workers were a loyal group and often shared
their companys problems as many found themselves locked
in state and federal battles over land and regulations. It led
to a sort of railroad subculture where everyone knew everyone
else and reputations were made and often broken.
After Jones had put in numerous years working as a freight and
passenger engineer between Jackson, Tenn. and Water Valley, the
engineer was transferred full-time to the Memphis to Canton, Miss.
run as part of the Illinois Centrals southern passenger
train. The popular train was nicknamed "the Cannonball Express"
and had a reputation for keeping its timetable.
On April 29, 1900, Casey Jones pulled ICR Engine number 382 into
the Memphis Station from Canton, Miss. at 10:00 p.m. Casey and
long-time associate Sim Webb, who worked as the engineers
fireman stoking the steam-generating coal stove, jumped off the
train and started gathering their gear to return home after a
The 25-year-old black fireman had become a close friend of Casey
and both were regarded as one of the railroad lines best
teams. Both men looked forward to getting home and catching up
on some long-overdue sleep. They went to the "checking-in"
office to deliver their reports when Casey heard someone say that
engineer Joe Lewis had fell ill with cramps and would not be able
to take his train out that night. Casey and Sim Webb were asked
if they could take the run and cover for Lewis. The men agreed
to take the train the 180 miles to Canton, Miss.
After the two made a meal of sandwiches and coffee, they drove
their train to the Poplar Street Station where they discovered
the six-car southbound Cannonball was running 95 minutes behind
schedule when it finally pulled into Memphis. After coupling their
locomotive to the six passenger cars, Casey Jones and Sim Webb
pulled out of the station at 12:50 a.m. heading south for Canton.
The rail-line had given the men a clear track meaning that
other engines were being notified to move to side tracks so Jones
and Webb would have a straight shot to the Mississippi station.
As Casey Jones pulled out of Memphis, he laid down on his trademark
six-tone calliope whistle and everyone within earshot knew Casey
Jones had pulled out and was headed south.
J.C. Turner was the Conductor of the train and realized the engineer
would have to go fast to make up the schedule and appease some
grumpy passengers. Although the weather had been rainy and foggy
for two weeks and it was unusually dark that night because of
heavy clouds, he felt confident about the tracks ahead. A light
rain was falling, but considered unimportant to the trains
progress. In fact, the Conductor knew that with the Jones-Webb
team in the engine, the odds were great for a record run to make
up the lost time.
As Casey Jones cleared the Memphis station, he opened up the engine
and began building speed. Engine 382 steamed up nicely and used
very little fuel. It was soon clipping along the southbound tracks
at a mile a minute. Jones first stop was at the Sardis station
and then one at Grenada, Miss. The engine was warmed up and moving
at incredible speed. Casey was known for being fearless in putting
the spurs to the train and getting all he could out the steam-generated
engines. He roared into the Winona station, then Durant, and on
south towards Canton.
Along the way, word had been given to other engineers to move
their trains aside and let Jones pass. As he pulled the engine
out of Durant, Jones reportedly yelled to Webb:
"Oh Sim, the old girls got her high-heeled slippers
on tonight !"
The train roared on towards Vaughan, Miss. As they were approaching,
Casey Jones and Sim Webb noticed it was close to 4 a.m. They had
made up all of the lost time but one minute. Jones pushed the
throttle forward past 70 miles an hour to make up the 60 seconds.
The track approaching the train was a long winding section above
the city with a sidetrack that began where the curve ended.
Unknown to Jones and Webb, two freight trains were being transferred
over to the sidetrack as ordered, but having a hard time. During
the transfer, one of the trains had ruptured an air hose forcing
the other train to halt leaving its caboose and three other
freight cars blocking the main line. Two flagmen had been dispatched
by the railroad to take up position on the track and warn oncoming
traffic of the delay and "torpedoes" were placed on
the tracks. The "torpedoes" were huge glorified firecrackers
that would detonate with a loud retort and warn engineers, who
did not see the flagmen, that danger was ahead of them.
Jones and Webb were in the engine talking about the new whistle
that had been placed on the train in Memphis. After joking about
waking the town of Canton, Miss. with the new noisemaker, Webb
bent down to throw coal into the stove and heard the deafening
"bang" of the torpedo placed on the track. Webb immediately
jumped to the gang-way on the engineers side and looked
down the track. He saw a flagmen waving the red and white lights
along the rail line. Webb then ran to the other side of the compartment
and saw the markers on the caboose ahead of them still on the
tracks. Casey Jones, who was sitting in the engineers chair
of the train, was on the deeply curved side of the track and couldnt
see up ahead of his speeding train. Webb yelled out to him:
"Look out ! Were gonna hit something !"
Both men knew at once there was no way to completely stop the
train. As the train sped towards the caboose, Jones yelled at
Webb to jump from the train and save himself. Without thinking
for his own safety, Jones immediately stood up, kicked the chair
he was sitting in out of the way, and started pulling the air
brakes as hard as he could. The wheels began screaming as Jones
tried to bring the six-car train to a halt.
As they approached the stranded cars on the track, Webb got as
low as possible on the engine gang-way and, at close to 56 miles-per-hour,
leapt from the speeding train.
Engine 382 with Casey Jones at the throttle plowed into the back
of the stranded caboose and two others cars containing corn and
hay all the time applying the brakes of the speeding train
to minimize the impact on his passengers and blowing the trains
piercing whistle to warn those on the track he couldnt stop.
The crunching sound of metal and the screaming sounds of the wreck
brought people from throughout the small Mississippi area. Webb,
who was knocked unconscious from his fall, was taken to the nearby
station where he came around 35 minutes later.
John Luther "Casey" Jones, however, was killed instantly.
His battered and broken body was found in the engine with his
hand still clasped to the air brakes that stood between him and
mortal disaster for his passengers. To everyones surprise,
including the most hardened railroad veteran, Jones last
act had shown unbelievable courage. Because he had refused to
leave his post and save himself, he had prevented his passengers
from being killed or even seriously injured.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported the accident the next day
and relayed the news of Jones death.
"...The engineer was killed outright by the concussion,"
they wrote. "His body was found lying under the cab with
his skull crushed and the right arm torn from its socket. The
fireman jumped in time to save his life. A man working in the
mail car was thrown against the side of the car having two of
his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered
dangerous... He lived at Jackson, Tenn. where his remains were
shipped. He leaves a wife and three children."
A passenger named Adam Hauser wrote an article in the New Orleans
Times Democrat the day after the accident praising Jones.
"If the speed of the train after the torpedoes went off was
accurately judged by the mail clerk," wrote Hauser, "Engineer
Jones did a wonderful as well as an heroic piece of work at the
cost of his own life. I imagine that the Vaughan wreck will be
talked about in roadhouses, lunchrooms, and cabooses for the next
six months, not alone on the Illinois Central, but on many other
roads in Mississippi and Louisiana."
In the official reports filed by the Illinois Central Railroad,
company superintendent informed his superiors that the investigation
showed John "Casey" Jones to be solely responsible for
the accident by having disregarded the flagmen stationed on the
tracks. It also listed railroad company settlements with those
who were injured in the accident.
oSimon Webb, Fireman Train No. 1, body bruised jumping off Engine
oWm. Milller, Express Messenger, slight injuries $25.00
oW.L. Whiteside, Postal Clerk, jarred $1.00
oR.A. Ford, Postal Clerk, jarred $1.00
In addition, complete statements were taken from Fireman Simon
Webb and others on the tracks on April 30, 1900.
For those who knew how the railroad operated in those days, a
different story of the wreck began making the rounds. A black
blues singer named Wallace Saunders, who had worked for many years
with the ICR as an engine wiper and knew the colorful Casey Jones,
penned a song about the wreck a few days later.
The tune began working its way across train yards from Mississippi
to Maine to California. The song, which was written out of love
by the blues singer, became one of Americas leading folksongs
of its day. Wallace Saunders never received anything for it except
the recognition of having wrote it. Its popularity led to it being
incorporated into a vaudeville act in the early 1900s. Nine years
later the song was actually published and rose to become one of
Americas most popularly sung folksongs and an icon that
would signify the life of Americas romantic railroad era.
Jones widow and three children remained in the town of Jackson.
In later years, the children grew up and relocated to other cities
in West Tennessee. Mrs. Jones, Sim Webb, and others were interviewed
countless times by journalists wanting to tell the "true"
story of Casey Jones. Their stories, however, had a reverse affect.
The actual facts surrounding the accident that killed him became
confused with numerous other legends of American culture and the
myth was born.
The story of April 30, 1900 became a fixture in American railroad
lore. When asked why the story of Casey Jones is so popular, American
historians will give you a thousand different answers.
"I think it was just one of those things that captured the
American imagination," said one University of Tennessee professor.
"In a day where people truly made their fortunes off of the
backs of the poor and cared little for anything but their own
fortunes, here was a simple working man who gave his life to protect
people he didnt know. To the people of the day not used
to hearing such stories, he was a hero. To those who worked on
the railroad, he was considered a textbook company man
that set the standard for others to follow. Also, train wrecks
have always been good news copy. Newspapers across the south and
midwest carried the story, which made Casey Jones Americas
first real railroad hero. As the nations train service evolved
and became invaluable to society, Casey Jones story, usually
embellished with each telling, became larger than life and eventually
drifted into the realm of American mythological figures like Paul
Bunyan and John Henry. "
The "Ballad of Casey Jones" did indeed become a tune
taught to school children across America and the legend of the
railroad engineer is one of the most told tales around the world.
It got another big boost from Jerry Garcia and the popular recording
group "The Grateful Dead" when they recorded an underground
version of the song that became one of their trademark performance
There are numerous books, Internet web sites, and articles on
Casey Jones life available in bookstores and local libraries.
One of the best is "A Treasury of Railroad Folklore"
published by Bonanza Books in New York in 1989.
Casey Jones Home in Jackson, Tenn. was eventually made into a
state historic site and turned into a museum featuring numerous
artifacts from his life and times. The home was moved from its
original location on East Street in Jackson and relocated to its
present position on Casey Jones Lane just off Interstate 40. While
there are other exhibits and museums featuring the Tennessean,
the Casey Jones Village in Jackson celebrates the life and times
of Americas favorite engineer like no other. Within the
village, visitors get a chance to witness railroadings "steam-age"
while they tour the museum and see a life-sized replica of Engine
382. In addition, others can book a night in an old railroad sleeper
car nearby to see what it was like in the days of train travel.
The 500-seat restaurant called the Old Country Store across the
parking lot is truly one of the most popular places to eat in
the West Tennessee city and features numerous artifacts and information
on Casey Jones colorful life. The restaurant and store is patterned
after a turn of the century general store and confectionery, which
also features numerous Americana artifacts, including many from
the Old West.
In addition, the village features the Casey Jones Train Store
a model train and memorabilia shop where collectors can
tour and purchase numerous items. The store is one of the most
popular of its kind in North America and draws railroad hobbyists
from around the world. Casey Jones Village also has a 3,000 seat
amphitheater, the Alpine Christmas Shop, and The Cheese Factory,
which has also earned a name for itself across the south. It is
open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the summer and 8 a.m. to 5
p.m. in the winter months. Although it may sound like a modest
assortment of specialty shops and attractions for a state historic
site, the number of visitors Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tenn.
draws every year is phenomenal even by Tennessee standards.
Casey Jones Village is consistently rated each year as one of
Tennessees top ten tourist attractions and attracts people
from all over the world a lasting memorial to a dedicated
train engineer whom history has deemed unforgettable.