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 nation’s 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 6’4" 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 nation’s biggest employers. Railroad workers were a loyal group and often shared their company’s 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 Central’s 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 engineer’s fireman stoking the steam-generating coal stove, jumped off the train and started gathering their gear to return home after a successful run.
The 25-year-old black fireman had become a close friend of Casey and both were regarded as one of the railroad line’s 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 train’s 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 girl’s 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 engineer’s 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 engineer’s chair of the train, was on the deeply curved side of the track and couldn’t see up ahead of his speeding train. Webb yelled out to him:
"Look out ! We’re 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 train’s piercing whistle to warn those on the track he couldn’t 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 everyone’s 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 382 $5.00
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 America’s 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 America’s most popularly sung folksongs and an icon that would signify the life of America’s 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 didn’t 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 America’s first real railroad hero. As the nation’s 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 numbers.
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 America’s favorite engineer like no other. Within the village, visitors get a chance to witness railroading’s "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 Tennessee’s 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.