Casey Jones' Sacrifice
Come all you rounders, for I want you to hear
The story told of a brave engineer;
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
On a six-eight wheeler, boys, he won his fame
Caller called Jones about half-past four,
Jones kissed his wife at the station door
Climbed into the cab with his orders in his hand.
Says, ‘This is my trip to the Promised Land.’
- The Ballad of Casey Jones (lyrics: Wallace Saunders, T. Lawrence Seibert, 1900)
Folk lore figures come from many sources. Some, such as Paul Bunyan, the outsized lumberjack who roamed the American North Woods, are pure fiction.
Others, such as the African-American railroad laborer, John Henry (who lost a man-versus-machine showdown to a newfangled steam drill), were real; their stories were subsumed into the murky realm of the folk tale.
There is another railroad man whose name has since also joined the ranks of folk-lore figures. This was the engineer of Old #382, Casey Jones. His one claim to fame was losing his life inCredit: hdtrainwreck.com; public domain a train wreck in 1900. No other lives were lost in that accident and Jones’ actions became the stuff of folklore, celebrated later in song and in other areas of pop culture.
But a closer look at Casey’s heroic tending of his engine’s till may reveal something other than a hero. Is it possible Jones was a hotshot bungler whose actions not only caused the train wreck in which he was immortalized but also cost him his life?
The Man from Cayce
Cayce (pronounced “kay-see”), Kentucky, is a small community in Fulton County, the most extreme western and southern county in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. It abuts the Mississippi River to its west and the Tennessee border to its south.
Though born in Missouri on March 14, 1863, Jonathan Luther Jones spent his boyhood near Cayce, Kentucky. His family moved there in 1876. From this boyhood dwelling place he was given the nickname “Casey”.
When Casey was 15, he found work as a telegraph operator in Columbus, Kentucky (in Hickman County, the county north of Fulton County). This job was with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad (the M & O), and from that day forth Casey Jones was a railroad man. [Jones wasn’t all work, though. He loved baseball and played on the local team in Columbus, Kentucky.]
Still working for the M & O, he moved to Jackson, Tennessee, in 1884 where he was a flagman for the company. He stayed in a boarding house—as an itinerant railroader a fixed home seemed pointless. He was handsome and, by then, a tall lad—6’4”. The daughter of his landlord caught his eye, however, and after converting to her religion of Catholicism, he and Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady (b: Credit: caseyjones.com; public domain1866) married on November 25, 1886. Casey and his wife bought a house in Jackson and settled down. Three children would be produced by this union.
Riding the Rails
Casey Jones held many jobs for the railroad that employed him. From telegrapher, he was promoted to flagman, and from there he was a brakeman and then a fireman.
Of these jobs, the brakeman’s was probably the most dangerous—the knuckle-style couplings to string rail cars together had yet to be invented. It was the brakeman’s job to connect the cars using a pin and an oblong “eye” hook. This meant standing between the cars as they moved into position. With much slack in this set-up brakeman were frequently injured or crushed to death if they weren’t nimble enough to make the connection by dropping the pin through the “eye” hook and leaping clear.
The fireman tended the firebox, keeping it supplied with wood or coal, making sure it ran hot enough to generate the steam for locomotion. It, too, was a dirty and dangerous job. Sparks and fire blasts from opening the firebox hatch could cause severe burns. Long term inhalation of coal and wood smoke often led to a slow death from emphysema.
However, the fireman’s job for Casey Jones got him into the cab of the engine and one step closer to the most desirable position on a train, that of the engineer. His promotion to fireman had less to do with his skills than a deadly outbreak of yellow fever in 1887. A competitor of the M & O, the Illinois Central Railroad, was especially hit hard with many of its crew succumbing to the yellow fever. Jones, among many others, took this opportunity to make the move in March 1888 to the Illinois Central where firemen were sorely needed.
He routinely fired the engines on a route between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi (a one-way trek of about 120 miles bypassing Memphis, Tennessee, to the west of the route). The train mostly hauled freight between those two hubs, and both were important spurs for the Illinois Central.
Running the Show
February 23, 1891, found the 27-year-old Casey Jones (by then a 12-year veteran of the rails) promoted into his dream job of engineer. He maintained his run from Jackson to Water Credit: watervalley.net; public domainValley. He gained a reputation for being a stickler for punctuality in his runs, and he sometimes took risks to insure he never “fell down” (arrived behind the railroad’s advertised time).
He was mostly successful in his goal to move his train on schedule, and in 1893, the Illinois Central was given a contract to shuttle people to and from the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Casey’s company sent out calls for experienced engineers who wanted to make these commuter runs—Jones responded and he and his family moved to Chicago for several months while he ran a local commuter service to and from the Expo grounds.
Afterward he returned to the Tennessee-to-Mississippi run he’d previously worked.
One Act of Heroism
Jones had at least one documented case of real heroics in his railroad career prior to the fateful wreck that made him a household name.
A steam engine required constant attention; stopping for routine maintenance was not always feasible. Many times the firemen or brakemen or even the engineers would crawl out onto the engine’s running boards to do things such as clear a cowcatcher of debris or to oil certain moving parts. Usually, this meant slowing the train down enough to allow a worker to go out onto the engine’s fore without getting thrown off.
In 1895, while approaching the station at Michigan City, Mississippi, Casey Jones left the cab of his engine in the care of his co-engineer on that run. Casey had gone out to oil some valves on the engine as the train slowed enough for him to work without worrying about being cast off. Finishing his oiling and making some other adjustments to some other apparatus on the engine’s housing, he was headed back toward the cab when he spotted a group of children darting onto the tracks about sixty yards ahead.
He yelled out for them to clear off and all but one child ran from the rail right-of-way. This one—a small girl—froze in terror as the slow-moving train bore down on her. Casey clambered to the front of the engine and lowered himself onto the cowcatcher. Pressing to its very tip he reached out and snagged the girl off the rails to safety on the engine’s cowcatcher as the train rumbled past.
But it was not all heroics for Casey Jones. Foolhardiness was also part of his make-up, too. During his career he was cited nine times for safety and operational violations, costing him a total of 145 days of suspension from his job.
He was known as a risk-taker, at times running faster than was good under certain track conditions. Sometimes, he violated safety protocols to keep his train running on time. His suspensions ranged from 5 to 30 days each. He had been fired at least once (in 1897) after a violation, but because he was a member of two labor unions he was able to file a union-backed grievance and get his job back. [Each of his citations may have been serious enough for him to be fired, but only one documented case—with Jones getting his job back thanks to his union—is clearly recorded as a termination].
While being the engineer of a train was the most coveted position for regular railroaders at the end of the 19th Century being the engineer of a passenger train was even more coveted. The pay was better, the shifts were shorter, and there was a certain prestige attached to being the “captain” of a passenger train.
Casey got his shot at the ultimate prize in February 1900. Before then he had the occasional passenger train run (and he had gotten a taste for that particular aspect of railroading during his shuttle service days in Chicago in 1893). Now, making a move to Memphis from Jackson after getting a transfer, he was finally at the pinnacle of his railroad career.
Get that Train Through!
In those days, an engineer tended to stay with his engine, working whatever runs that engine was assigned. Casey left his old engine, #638 of the Illinois Central, behind and was given the Illinois Central’s engine #384 when he set up shop in Memphis.
Passenger trains had the highest priority on the rail lines. This meant in cases where two trains had to share the same stretch of track, routers made sure the passenger trains got the clear signal while freight carriers had to pull off onto side tracks and wait. For Casey Jones, the ego boost of deadheading on clear track—when previously he had been the one cooling his heels “in the hole” (sidetracked with his freight)—was heady stuff, certainly after his 10 years as a freight engineer.
The run he was assigned was part of Illinois Central’s Chicago to New Orleans (Louisiana) service. His leg of that four-part trek took passengers from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi (almost 190 miles one-way).
For a year before his last, tragic run, Jones had kept his nose clean with the Illinois Central operation. He had no citations or any suspensions. It doesn’t mean he didn’t bend rules or make up time by taking shortcuts to get rolling—it means he didn’t get caught. He still had a reputation for doing everything he could to make it on time every time.
Casey Jones was at the Memphis station on April 29, 1900, after returning from Canton, Mississippi, in his engine, #384. He was supposed to layover in Memphis until his nextCredit: condrenrails.com; public domain scheduled run in #384. Instead, he was asked to fill in for a second run, using another engine, #382. The regular engineer of #382 had called in sick with an intestinal problem (“cramps”, most likely diarrhea). Casey was offered the extra run back to Canton from Memphis, and he agreed to take it.
The normal scheduled time to complete the one-way trip to Memphis to Canton was almost five hours (4 hours, 50 minutes). It included water stops along the way, thus netting an average speed for the run of about 39 miles per hour (all things considered). Because of the situation created by the absentee engineer, #382 was 95 minutes behind schedule when Jones climbed into its cab and pulled out of the Memphis station at 12:05 AM on the morning of April 30. Beside Casey Jones was #382’s assigned fireman, Simeon (“Sim”) T. Webb, an African-American.
Jones pulled out with six cars, including some with passengers. It was raining, the night air was heavy with fog, and the rails to Canton contained many sharp curves. Casey Jones took all these things into consideration, but opened up the throttle anyway. He got #382 up to 80 miles per hour. He made two water stops, and upon leaving his second in Grenada, Mississippi, he had managed to shave off 55 minutes of the 95 minutes he needed to bring #382 into Canton on time.
End of the Line
In his next 25-mile stretch, Jones gained another 15 minutes by pushing engine #382 to its limits. He gained even more in the next 30 miles to Durant, Mississippi (at the 155 mile mark). At Durant he was advised he would have to take a side track and wait for the northbound train on the route to pass. Leaving Durant, Sim Webb later reported Jones was ecstatic over the time he was making up, and said, “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!” At the same time he began letting out the throttle to whip the engine back up to break-neck speeds.
Jones hit Goodman, Mississippi, sat on the sidetrack as directed, and left that station only 5 minutes behind schedule. For the rest of the leg, he was supposed to have priority and a clear track. This would be the last 25 miles, and he knew the route well enough to know he could open #382 up without much worry.
Unfortunately, there was plenty to worry about. In Vaughan, Mississippi, just 15 miles south of Goodman, there was a problem. Scheduling issues and simple logistical problems put Casey Jones and his passenger train in peril.
At the Vaughan station three other trains were sidetracked, awaiting the passage of Jones and #382. There was a northbound train sitting on Vaughan’s west sidetrack and it was clear of the main line.
Two trains, however, were vying for space on Vaughan’s east sidetrack. One was a northbound freighter, and it, too, was completely sidetracked and clear of the main line. The problem was the third train. This southbound freighter could not fit completely onto the siding with the other train. Four of its cars remained sticking out onto the main line as its engineer taxied it onto the sidetrack, nosing closer to the northbound freighter.
The yardmen were at work executing a maneuver to release these last four cars and shunt them over to a different track when an air hose broke on the brake lines, leaving the brakes locked on these four cars, immoveable and a certain obstacle on the main line.
Frantically, workers realized they could not move the cars. Accounts would differ later, but allegedly a flagman ran north of the stalled cars and stationed himself to flag Jones down after placing a “torpedo” on the line near the stalled cars. [The torpedo is a small incendiary device. It is strapped to a rail—when a passing train rolls over it, the device explodes making a noise loud enough to warn a driver there is trouble ahead.]
Casey Jones, meanwhile, was oblivious to what lay ahead. At 75 miles per hour he was in a 1.5-mile long curve around which he could not see.
Sim Webb, however, did get a chance to see up ahead before Casey Jones as his seat in the cab was on the curve’s inside. He saw the red light of the caboose sticking out onto the main line at the Vaughan station. He screamed at Jones that there was something on the track—Jones shouted back for Sim Webb to jump off the train. Webb reported he heard Jones lay heavily on the train’s whistle as he made ready to jump; he heard the engine whine as Jones desperately threw it in reverse, and heard the screeching of metal wheels on steel rails as Jones leaned into the air brake. Sim Webb leapt from the cab—at that speed he covered many feet in the air before hitting the ground and lapsing into unconsciousness.Credit: Casey Jones Museum, Jackson, TN
Casey Jones came hurtling south out of the dark and the fog in a screeching of metal, a shrieking of grinding gears, and a shower of sparks. His efforts to stop the train in a short distance on wet tracks did not prevent the inevitable—he had managed to knock its speed down to about 35 miles per hour but it still wasn’t enough.
Engine #382 slammed into and plowed its way through the wooden caboose of the stalled train, a rail car filled with hay, one loaded with corn, and burrowed halfway through a car loaded with timber before jumping the tracks.
Jones’ reflexes saved every passenger on board his train though many were injured in the derailing.
The only fatality was Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones. When his body was recovered it was noted his watch—damaged in the wreck—had stopped working at the time of the accident: 3:52 AM. It was also determined that at the time Sim Webb jumped from its cab, engine #382 and Casey Jones were only 2 minutes behind schedule.
As a good ship’s captain would do, Casey Jones (though perfectly free to do so) had not abandoned his charge—he drove his train straight through to his death. A later embellishment to the tale alleged that Casey’s hands still held onto the whistle cord and brake (impossible, as his body was recovered from under the cab). A group of men found a stretcher on the baggageCredit: watervalley.net; publci domain car of Casey’s train. His body was placed on this; it was then trundled, by foot, the half-mile to the Vaughan depot.
The estimated cost of the accident in material, railroad property, and other things totaled $3324.75 (in 2012 dollars that is equivalent to $90,308.14). This included the wreck of engine #382, a caboose, two box cars, a mail car, and a baggage car. Damaged track amounted to slightly over $100 and the cost of clearing the wreck was $125. [The engine, #382, was recovered, shipped off to New York, and rebuilt. It continued to run under its number, but was wrecked twice more: in 1903 (1 death) and again in 1905 (no fatalities). Perhaps to break a jinx on the engine, it was given a new designation: “2012”. This apparently made no difference—the engine was involved in yet another accident in 1912 in which 4 people were killed.]
Outside the property damage there was the human cost, too. For his bruising and other injuries from his jump Sim Webb received $5 (or about $135 today). Other injured passengers, because their wounds were so slight, only received $1 (roughly $27 today) for their claims (though a $25 payout went to an express messenger on the train for his slight back and left side injuries). Two other postal clerks on the mail car—for being jarred in the wreck—received a dollar each. [Such a fee may seem paltry but professional land surveyors in that time earned a dollar per day for their expertise.] One of the passengers was the wife of another Illinois Central engineer—it can safely be presumed she was likely awarded a larger sum than the others.
When Casey died his oldest son was 12, the middle child (a girl) was 10, and his youngest son was 4 (this son died in action in France during World War I). His wife cashed in on two life insurance policies (both issued by the two unions in which Casey held membership) totaling $3,000. She later settled with the Illinois Central Railroad for $2,650 as compensation for the loss of her husband. Thus, her total compensation was $5,650 (a bit over $150,000 in 2012 money). She received no other funds after that.
As for Casey Jones, his cause of death remains unclear. One of the earliest newspaper reports claimed:
“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.”
Reports vary as to what led to his demise. Initially, it was claimed by a section hand who had helped pull his body from the wreckage that he had a large splinter of wood driven squarely into his skull (very likely). Later revisions claimed he had a bolt slammed into his neck upon impact, others say he was crushed to death, and still others say he had been scalded to death by escaping steam from the engine’s boiler.
All of those scenarios are possible. Regardless of how, Casey Jones was dead.
Birth & Long Life of a Legend
Jones’ remains were shipped back to Jackson, Tennessee, on the next day’s passenger train out of Vaughan. His funeral was held the day after that in the same church where he had gotten married. Among the mourners were 15 engineers from his old stomping grounds of Water Valley, Mississippi, who had made the trek “up north” to say goodbye to Casey Jones. He was buried in Jackson’s Mount Calvary Cemetery. His grave was originally marked with a wooden cross. [In 1947, a stone monument was donated to his gravesite by two non-local railroad enthusiasts; despite the good intentions, the year of his birth was incorrectly inscribed on that stone as “1864” (he was born in 1863).]
very quickly. Jones was touted as a hero from the start. One reporter interviewed a passenger, Adam Hauser. In his interview, Hauser said he’d been sleeping in a berth on board Casey’s train when “I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still.” He also noted there was no panic aboard his car as the passengers who were alert seemed oblivious to what was actually happening until it was over seconds later.
Hauser also stoked the fires of hero-worship by adding:
“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.”
[Hauser, perhaps, overlooked the obvious—Jones had not stopped the train himself. He had only managed to drop its speed by a bit over half. It was the plowing into the rear of another train that brought Jones’ rig to a halt.]
The wreck of Engine #382 was talked about for much longer than six months, though. In the wake of the incident the Illinois Central conducted an investigation. A preliminary report filed five hours after the accident (by a conductor) stated flatly that Jones did not respond to a flagman placed “at a proper distance” and it was assumed he simply did not see the flagman.
A more thorough inquiry provided more details. The flagman (part of the crew of the train Casey plowed into) claimed he had gone 3,000 feet north of his stalled train. There, he said, he placed torpedoes on the track. [At this distance, even at his speed of 75 miles per hour, Jones—had he heard the torpedoes go off—might have been able to bring the train to a safe stop before hitting the stalled cars on the main line.]
The flagman claimed he then went a further 800 feet up the track and stood to wave down the incoming #382. The conclusion drawn was that Jones, in his zealousness to “get there as advertised”, was either so absorbed in his task that he didn’t notice the flagman or he negligently overlooked him. Either way, the Illinois Central placed the blame for the wreck squarely on Casey Jones.
Controversy surrounds those findings. Initially, Sim Webb (probably coached by Illinois Central reps) was quoted as saying he heard the torpedoes go off and then saw the waving lanterns of the flagman just about the same time he saw the lights on the caboose they were bearing down upon. This means, however, that if present the flagman was not far enough up the track as claimed, and his presence was pointless in so short a distance.
Sim recanted this almost immediately; he later stated there were no torpedoes, flares, or flagmen present at all. That story is the one he stayed with for the rest of his life. He swore, “We saw no flagman or fusees [flares], we heard no torpedoes. Without any warning we plowed into that caboose.”
As for the flagman himself, his name was John M. Newberry. He was a veteran of the rails, and he had just earlier successfully flagged another train through the mess at the Vaughan station. With respect to Casey Jones’ train, however, he may have been covering for his own negligence by claiming he was farther up the track than he might have been.
Some believe Newberry never even made an effort to forestall any problems. Because everyone at the Vaughan station knew Jones’ train had been delayed by 95 minutes in Memphis maybe Newberry thought there was plenty of time to sort out the sidetrack situation and that the southbound passenger train was nowhere near the station yet. It probably never occurred to him (or anyone) that Jones could have made up as much lost travel time as he had.
Others think that Newberry set out as planned to take his post but hearing the ruckus over the stalled train’s bursting air-brake hose may have hastened back toward that train to help just about the time Jones came out of the curve at top speed. This means he was derelict in his duty, something he would certainly never admit.
Only the Illinois Central took the reasonable position that Jones, in the end, was at fault. He was running too fast for conditions, and he was reckless. Even still, it is unlikely he would have failed to notice a flagman’s frantically waving lanterns, nor could he have ignored the loud explosive sound of rail torpedoes. The only conclusion to draw is that, as Sim Webb insisted, there was no flagman or torpedoes on the track. They came upon the situation blindly and reacted, with Sim Webb jumping overboard and Casey Jones riding the brake to his death.
Sim Webb (b: 1874), Jones’ African-American fireman, died at age 83 in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 13, 1957. He maintained to his death that neither he nor Jones had anyCredit: condrenrails.com forewarning of what lay ahead for them on April 30, 1900.
Casey’s wife, Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady Jones, never remarried claiming it never occurred to her. Though many sources fancifully (and romantically) say she wore black clothes (in mourning) nearly every day of her life, photographs taken of her over various times (many candid shots) prove otherwise. [A photo of her shot in 1949 shows her in a patterned dress. One taken about 2 years before her death shows her in a polka-dotted dress.]
Janie died, in Jackson, Tennessee, on November 21, 1958, of complications of a stroke she’d had a few weeks before. She was a month into her 92nd year.Credit: watervalley.net
Pop Culture Casey
The sensational story was almost immediately set into song in 1900, and this tune, “The Ballad of Casey Jones”, has found its way into the pantheon of great American folk songs. In the Credit: tennessee.govsong, Casey is a bit prophetic when he climbs into the cab of Old #382: “This is my trip to the Promised Land”. Other artists have not only covered this classic song but have written their own songs about Casey Jones.
Movies have featured his character, and the heroic “cowcatcher” saving of the little girl by Jones has been used to great effect as a stunt in many early silent films and later in TV Westerns. The character of Jones has featured in big-budget films and in Disney animation. Television has referenced him multiple times, and a television series ran for 32 episodes from 1957-1958 called Casey Jones (featuring Alan Hale, Jr.—the future “Skipper” of Gilligan’s Island—in the title role).
In 1950 the US Postal Service issued a 3-cent stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of Jones’ infamous last run.Credit: US Postal Service; publci domain
It is obvious that Jones was reckless in gearing #382 up to unsafe speeds considering the visibility issues (rain and fog). However, there is also enough evidence to show that those further down the line, operating perhaps on assumptions about Jones’ progress, failed to institute the proper safety procedures to avert a disaster when problems arose at the Vaughan turnouts.
In the end, many may point at Jones as a showboating hot-dogger, a glory-hound. The reality is he made the supreme sacrifice to insure that those on his train might stand a chance of survival even if it was certain he would not live to tell the tale himself. That, while perhaps borne of negligence, in and of itself does make him a hero.
slight variation in the lyrics, from about 1910
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