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Casey Jones
John Luther Jones

(1863-03-14)March 14, 1863
Died April 30, 1900(1900-04-30) (aged 37)
Cause of death Train wreck
Burial place Mount Calvary Cemetery, Jackson, Tennessee, U.S.
Other names "John"/"Casey" Jones
  • Locomotive engineer
  • railroad worker
Known for Heroic sacrifice for refusal to abandon post to ensure the safety of passengers from an inevitable collision.
Mary Joanna Brady
(m. 1886)
Children 3

John Luther "Casey" Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900) was an American railroader who was killed when his passenger train collided with a stalled freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi.

Jones was a locomotive engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, based in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. He was noted for his exceptionally punctual schedules, which sometimes required a degree of risk, though this was not a factor on his fatal last journey. However, there is some disagreement about the sequence of events on that night, April 29–30, 1900.

He was due to run the southbound passenger service from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi, departing 11:35pm. Owing to the absence of another engineer, he had to take over another service through the day, which may have deprived him of sleep. He eventually departed 75 minutes late, but was confident of making up the time, with the powerful ten-wheeler Engine No. 382, known as "Cannonball".

Casey Jones Postcard
Casey Jones postcard with a commemorative postage stamp

Approaching Vaughan at high speed, he was unaware that three trains were occupying the station, one of them broken down and directly on his line. Some claim that he ignored a flagman signalling to him, though this person may have been out of sight on a tight bend, or obscured by fog. All are agreed, however, that Jones managed to avert a potentially disastrous crash through his exceptional skill at slowing the engine and saving the lives of the passengers at the cost of his own. For this, he was immortalized in a traditional song, "The Ballad of Casey Jones".

Family background

Jones was born near Cayce, Kentucky, where he acquired the nickname of "Cayce", which he chose to spell as "Casey".

Jones met his wife Mary Joanna "Janie" Brady through her father who owned the boarding house where Jones was staying. Since she was Catholic, he decided to convert and was 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, Tennessee, on November 25, 1886. They bought a house at 211 West Chester Street in Jackson, Tennessee, where they raised their three children. By all accounts he was a devoted family man and teetotaler.

Promotion to engineer

Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, 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 (IC) providing an unexpected opportunity for faster promotion of firemen on that line. On March 1, 1888, Jones switched to IC, firing a freight locomotive between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

He was promoted to engineer, his lifelong goal, on February 23, 1891. Jones reached the pinnacle of the railroad profession as an expert locomotive engineer for IC. Railroading was a talent, and Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best engineers in the business. He was known for his insistence that he "get her there on the advertised [time]" and that he never "fall down", meaning he never arrived 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 IC, and he developed close ties with them between 1890 and 1900.

Famous steam whistle

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 IC line between Jackson and Water Valley would turn over in their beds late at night upon hearing it and say "There goes Casey Jones" as he roared by.

Service at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893

During the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, Illinois, in 1893, IC was charged with providing commuter service for the thousands of visitors to the fairground. A call was sent out for trainmen who wanted to work there. 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.

Casey Jones
Casey Jones in cab of No.638 in 1898

At the Exposition, he became acquainted with No. 638, a big new freight engine IC had on display as the latest and greatest technological advancement in locomotives. 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. His request was approved, and No. 638 ran its first 589 miles (948 km) with Jones at the throttle to Water Valley. Jones liked No. 638 and liked working in the Jackson District because his family was there. They had once moved to Water Valley, but returned to Jackson, which they felt was home.

Jones drove the engine until he transferred to Memphis in February 1900. No. 638 stayed in Water Valley. That year he drove the engine that became most closely associated with him, for one time. That was Engine No. 382, known affectionately as "Ole 382.", or "Cannonball". It was a steam-driven Rogers 4-6-0 "Ten Wheeler" with six drivers, each approximately six feet (1.8 m) high. Bought new in 1898 from the Rogers Locomotive Works, it was a very powerful engine for the time.

His regular fireman on No. 638 was his close friend, John Wesley McKinnie, with whom he worked exclusively from about 1897 until he switched to the passenger run out of Memphis. There he worked with his next and last fireman, Simeon T. "Sim" Webb in 1900.

Rescue of a child from the tracks

A little-known example of Jones's heroic instincts in action is described by his biographer and friend Fred J. Lee in his book Casey Jones: Epic of the American Railroad (1939). He recounts an incident in 1895 as Jones's train approached Michigan City, Mississippi. He had left the cab in charge of fellow engineer Bob Stevenson, who had reduced speed sufficiently for Jones to walk safely 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 60 yards (55 m) ahead. All cleared the rails easily except for a little girl who suddenly froze in fear at the sight of the oncoming locomotive. Jones shouted to Stevenson to reverse the train and yelled to the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Realizing that she was still immobile, he raced to the tip of the pilot or cowcatcher and braced himself on it, reaching 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, in which the hero rescued a damsel from a cliché bandit.

Baseball player

Jones was an avid baseball fan and watched or participated in the game whenever his schedule allowed. During the 1880s, he had played at Columbus, Kentucky, while he was a club 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.

Rules infractions

Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions in his career, with a total of 145 days suspended. But 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 risk-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.

Transfer to passenger trains

Jones, in February 1900, 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 a generic term for speed service. 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. Jones had to move his family to Memphis and give up working with his close friend John Wesley McKinnie on No. 638, but he thought the change was worth it. Jones would drive Hatfield's Engine No. 382 until his death in 1900.

Fatal accident

Casey Jones Marker 021201
Marker in Memphis, Tennessee, commemorating Casey Jones

There is disagreement over the circumstances prior to Casey Jones's fatal last run. In the account given in the book Railroad Avenue by Freeman H. Hubbard, which was based on an interview with fireman Sim Webb, he and Casey had been used extra on trains 3 and 2 to cover for engineer Sam Tate, who had marked off ill. They returned to Memphis at 6:25 a.m. on the morning of April 29, giving them adequate time to be rested for number 1 that night, which was their regular assigned run.

The Fred J. Lee biography Casey Jones contended the men arrived in Memphis on No. 4 at 9 p.m. on the evening of April 29. They were asked to turn right around and take number 1 back to Canton to fill in for Sam Tate, who had marked off. This would have given them little time to rest, as Number 1 was due out at 11:35 p.m. In both of these accounts, Jones's regular run was trains 1 and 4.

In a third account, trains 3 and 2 were Jones and Webb's regular run, and they were asked to fill in for Sam Tate that night on No. 1, having arrived that morning on No. 2.

In any event, they departed Memphis on the fatal run at 12:50 a.m., 75 minutes behind schedule owing to the late arrival of No. 1. The crew felt the conditions of the run, including a fast engine, a good fireman, a light train, and the rainy or damp weather, were ideal for a record-setting run. The weather was foggy that night, reducing visibility, and the run was well known for its tricky curves.

In the first section of the run, Jones drove from Memphis 100 miles (160 km) south to Grenada, Mississippi, with an intermediate water stop at Sardis, Mississippi, over a new section of light and shaky rails at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h). By the time Jones arrived at Grenada for another water stop, he had made up 55 minutes of the 75-minute delay.

Jones made up another 15 minutes in the 25-mile (40 km) stretch from Grenada to Winona, Mississippi. By the time he got to Durant, Mississippi 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 (8 miles (13 km) south of Durant), wait for the No. 2 passenger train to pass, and then continue on to Vaughan. Furthermore, he was informed he would meet local No. 26 passenger train at Vaughan (15 miles (24 km) south of Goodman). He was told that No. 26 was in two sections and would be on the siding, so he would take priority over it. Jones pulled out of Goodman only five minutes behind schedule. With 25 miles (40 km) of fast track ahead, Jones likely felt that he had a good chance to make it to Canton by 4:05 am "on the advertised".

Unbeknownst to Jones, three separate trains were in the station at Vaughan. The No. 83, a double-header freight train (located to the north and headed south), which had been delayed, and the No. 72, a long freight train (located to the south and headed north), were both on the passing track to the east of the main line. The combined length of the two trains was ten cars longer than the length of the east passing track, causing some of the cars to be stopped on the main line. The two sections of No. 26 had arrived from Canton earlier, and required a saw-by maneuver 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 in order 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 house track. The saw-by, however, left the rear cars of No. 83 overlapping above the north switch and on the main line, directly 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.

Casey Jones home
Memorial plaque for Jones, in front of his home at the time of his death

At the same time, Jones, who was almost back on schedule, was running at about 75 miles per hour (121 km/h) toward Vaughan. As Jones and Webb approached the station, they went through a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) left-hand curve that blocked Jones' view from the engine's right side. Webb's view from the left side was better, and he was first to see the red lights of the caboose on the main line. He alerted Jones, who ordered him to jump from the train. Webb leapt out about 300 feet (91 m) before impact, and was knocked unconscious. The last thing he heard as he jumped was the long, piercing whistle used by Jones to warn anyone still in the freight train looming ahead. At that point, Jones was only two minutes behind schedule.

Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but the engine quickly plowed through several loaded train cars before derailing. He had been able to reduce his speed to about 40 miles per hour (64 km/h) before impact. It's believed Jones' actions prevented any other serious injury and death; Jones was the only fatality of the collision. His watch stopped at the time of impact, 3:52 a.m. Popular legend holds his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake when his body was pulled from the wreckage.

The next morning, Jones's body was transported to Jackson, Tennessee by the No. 26 passenger train. A funeral service was held on May 2, 1900, at St. Mary's Church, where he and Janie Brady had married fourteen years before. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery. A record fifteen enginemen rode 118 miles (190 km) from Water Valley to pay their last respects.

Coverage of the accident

The headlines in The Jackson Sun (Jackson, Tennessee) 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."

Jones's 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.

Casey Jones depicted on a 3-cent postage stamp issued by the United States Postal Service

Illinois Central Railroad report on accident

A conductor's report filed five hours after the accident stated, "Engineer on No.1 failed to answer flagman who was out proper distance. It is supposed he did not see the flag." This was the position the IC held in its official reports.

The final IC accident report was released on July 13, 1900, by A.S. Sullivan, the General Superintendent of IC. It 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 out a distance of 3,000 feet (910 m), where he had placed warning torpedoes on the rail. He continued north a further distance of 500 to 800 feet (150 to 240 m), where he stood and gave signals to Jones's train No.1. Historians and the press had questions about the official findings.

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 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 (150–240 m) before the torpedoes as the report says he was. 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, "We saw no flagman or fusees, we heard no torpedoes. Without any warning we plowed into that caboose."

Injuries and losses from wreck

The personal injury and physical damage costs of the wreck were initially estimated as follows:

  • Simeon T. Webb, Fireman Train No. 1, body bruises from jumping off Engine 382 – $5.00 (equivalent to $176 in 2022)
  • Mrs. W. E. Breaux, passenger, 1472 Rocheblave Street, New Orleans, slight bruises – Not settled
  • Mrs. Wm. Deto, passenger, No 25 East 33rd Street, Chicago, slight bruises left knee and left hand – Not settled
  • Wm. Miller, Express Messenger, injuries to back and left side, apparently slight – $23.00 ($879 in 2022)
  • W. L. Whiteside, Postal Clerk, jarred – $1.00 ($35 in 2022)
  • R. A. Ford, Postal Clerk, jarred – $1.00 ($35 in 2022)
  • Engine No. 382; $1,396.25 ($49,114 in 2022)
  • Mail car No. 51 – $610.00 ($21,457 in 2022)
  • Baggage car No. 217 – $105.00 ($3,693 in 2022)
  • Caboose No. 98119 – $430.00 ($15,126 in 2022)
  • IC box car 11380 – $4000.00 ($140,704 in 2022)
  • IC box car 24116 – $55.00 ($1,935 in 2022)
  • Total (property damage only) – $2,996.00 ($105,387 in 2022)

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 IC engineer, and in the update her claim for injuries was still unsettled. 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's 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."

Later history of engines

For at least ten years after the wreck, the imprint of Jones's 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 four 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's beloved Engine No. 638 was sold to the Mexican government in 1921 and still ran there in the 1940s.

Other people involved

Jones's African-American fireman Simeon T. Webb (born May 12, 1874), died in Memphis on July 13, 1957, at age 83.

Jones's widow, Janie Brady Jones (born October 29, 1866), died on November 21, 1958, in Jackson at age 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's wife received $3,000 in insurance payments (Jones was 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 IC 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's service with the railroad, as the Railroad Retirement Fund was not established until 1937.

Jones's wife said she never had any thought of remarrying. She wore black nearly every day for the rest of her life.

Jones's 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.

See also

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