He was a simple man, a hardworking husband and father who loved his family, took great pride in his job, and died doing what he knew best. Yet Casey Jones became an American folk hero the likes of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and Johnny Appleseed; along with mythical heroes like Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill.
T. Clark Shaw, Chief Executive Officer for Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store, part of the Casey Jones Village in Jackson, Tennessee, said it best when he wrote “The life and legend of Casey Jones and how it all came about is most fascinating and one in which we should all be proud, for it is not only the story of one man’s death, but his dedication to duty that is representative of a people and nation whose adventurous spirit helped mold the America we know today.”
Jonathan Luther Jones was born on March 14, 1863 in the boot heel of Missouri, the son of a country school teacher named Frank Jones and his wife Anne. When Jonathan was a young boy, the family moved to the small town of Cayce, Kentucky.
This was the great age of the steam locomotive, and like most boys of his age and time, young Jonathan was enamored with the massive, powerful machines. His favorite pastime was hanging around the Cayce train depot, and dreaming of the exciting places the trains traveled to. At the age of 15, he got hired as a telegraph operator with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. The industrious young man caught the eye of his superiors and soon worked his way up to become a brakeman and fireman.
The railroad transferred Jonathan to Jackson, Tennessee, and the busy little city would become his home. He rented a room in a boarding house that catered to railroad men. It was here that he got his nickname, when a fellow boarder asked him where he was from. He replied, “Cayce, Kentucky,” and was known ever after as Casey Jones. Before long, Casey met and fell in love with his landlady’s daughter, a pretty young girl named Janie Brady. They were married in St. Mary’s Catholic Church on November 25, 1886. The couple would eventually have three children, two boys and a girl.
During this time, Casey Jones became employed with the Illinois Central Railroad and was promoted to the cherished position of engineer, and ran freight trains between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi.
By 1900, Casey Jones was an experienced and trusted engineer, though he was occasionally disciplined for pushing the railroad’s established speed limits. He was dedicated to “getting there on the advertised,” which meant arriving at the station on schedule. If that meant having the fireman shovel on a little more coal and running faster than the boys back in the office wanted him to, so be it.
In January, 1900, Casey was transferred to Memphis to handle part of the passenger run between Chicago and New Orleans. Casey’s assigned portion of the route would be from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi.
Casey was not supposed to be at the throttle of the train that fateful day of April 30, 1900. He and Sim Webb, his regular fireman, pulled into Memphis on the morning of April 29th from Canton, turned their train over to the next crew, and were scheduled to lay over until the next day before making the run back to Canton.
But Sam Tate, another engineer, had fallen ill and the stationmaster needed to find a replacement. Always ready to go the extra mile for the company, Casey stepped in to fill the vacancy. By the time the Number 1 train from Chicago arrived, later then expected, Casey and Webb were already 90 minutes behind schedule when they crawled into the cab of their locomotive.
Casey’s engine Number 382 sounded its distinctive six tone calliope whistle as they pulled out of the station at 12:30 a.m. It is 187 miles from Memphis to Canton as the crow flies, and Casey was determined to make up for the lost time and get into Canton on schedule. Sim Webb shoveled coal furiously and Casey poured on steam as they raced through the night. They sped past Grenada and Winona, Mississippi, and by the time they reached Vaughn, Mississippi, they were just two minutes behind. But fate had a terrible roadblock waiting on the rails ahead.
There were three other trains already in Vaughn. One had moved off the main line, and the other two were jockeying into position onto a side track. Due to a mechanical failure, four cars of one of the other trains remained on the main tracks when Casey Jones roared out of the night, just before 4 a.m.
As they came out of an S turn, Sim Webb spotted the red lights of the caboose on the main line and shouted out a warning. Casey responded immediately, throwing the locomotive’s throttle in reverse, jamming on the brakes, and blasting a warning on his horn.
Casey ordered Webb to jump and the fireman did at the last minute, sparing his life. Casey could have jumped, too, but he bravely stayed in the locomotive’s cab, doing everything he could to slow the train before impact.
The locomotive slammed into the train ahead, ripping its way through the wooden caboose, a car loaded with hay, another car loaded with corn, and partway through a car loaded with timber before it jumped the track. Casey Jones, the hard driving engineer, was found dead in the wreckage. He was 37 years old.
Nobody else was seriously injured in the train wreck, and credit for that goes to Casey. He could have jumped to safety, but chose instead to stay and try to slow the train as much as possible before the crash, reducing the risk to his passengers.
The official blame for the accident was laid at Casey’s feet. The railroad said he had disregarded signals that the tracks ahead were blocked. But until his own death, in 1957, Casey’s fireman, Sim Webb, insisted that there was no flagman or flare warning them of the danger that lay ahead.
Casey Jones was brought home to Jackson, Tennessee, where he was buried in the Mount Calvary Cemetery. But though the man was gone, a legend had been born. A worker at the Canton roundhouse, who spent his time singing as he wiped down the locomotives, made up a song about the popular engineer who was mourned by all who knew him. That song, the Ballad of Casey Jones, became popular nationwide. Three decades after his death, the story of Casey Jones was still told around potbellied stoves in railroad depots and living rooms across the nation. A book, movie, television, and radio series all added to Casey’s posthumous fame.
In 1956, the home where Casey and his wife lived at the time of his death was made into a museum, filled with railroad artifacts and memorabilia of the engineer’s life.
Today the home has been relocated, carefully restored, and is the Casey Jones Home Railroad Museum, the centerpiece of the Casey Jones Village complex, which includes the home, a display of railroad cars, ships, and Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store restaurant. Visitors can watch a video about Casey Jones, tour his home, shop for railroad souvenirs in the gift shop, and enjoy a delicious old fashioned meal in the restaurant.Mount Calvary Cemetery, on Hardee Street in East Jackson, where Casey is buried, is only open on Sundays. The cemetery is administered by Saint Mary’s Catholic Church, and they have been known to loan someone a key to the cemetery gate to gain access. If you do visit the cemetery to pay your respects, you may notice that the headstone says Casey Jones was born in 1864. This is an error. According to information written in the Jones family Bible, he was born in 1863. The tombstone was donated by two railroad enthusiasts, who accidentally got the wrong birth year.
A stop at Casey Jones Village, located just off Interstate 40 at Exit 80, gives visitors an opportunity to learn more about the brave engineer who drove his train into legend on that foggy night in Mississippi. The home is open Monday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from 1 – 5 p.m. Admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, $4.50 for children ages 6 to 12, and children 5 and under are admitted free. For more information, call (731) 668-1222 or visit the Casey Jones Village website at www.caseyjones.com.
Thought For The Day – Your belly button is just your old mouth.