JACKSON, Tenn. — Casey Jones is as much myth as he is historic figure.
Jones was catapulted into American folklore and became a railroad legend shortly before 4 a.m. on April 30, 1900.
Born John Luther Jones on March 14, 1863, in Southeast Missouri, he grew up in Cayce, Ky., the town which ultimately provided him a nickname. When he was 15-years-old, Jones became an apprentice telegraph operator on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. In March 1888, he took a job with the Illinois Central Railroad, pulling mostly freight trains for his first 11 years.
In 1899, Jones was offered a job engineering on the railroad’s Cannonball, connecting Chicago and New Orleans. He accepted the position and started engineering on the run in February 1900.
In the early morning hours of April 30, 1900, Jones, filling in for a sick engineer, sat behind the throttle of engine No. 382, pulling the Cannonball Express.
The Cannonball pulled out of the Memphis train station at 12:50 a.m., about 90 minutes behind schedule. By the time Jones reached Durant, Miss., he had made up almost all of the train’s lost time.
“Telegraph poles whizzed past like the pickets of a fence,” Fred J. Lee wrote in his 1940 biography of Jones.
“But to Casey Jones, every cattle guard, every mile post, every dim landmark was as the page of an open book,” Lee wrote. “His hands left the throttle and airbrake lever only when it was necessary to bear down on the whistle chord. Folks along the right of way, snug in their beds and only drowsily conscious, shot broad awake when No. 382’s whistle sent the mournful chime of the whippoorwill call echoing across the countryside.”
At Vaughan, Miss., two freight trains – a northbound and a southbound – shared a siding, but were too long and blocked the main line. Historians estimate Jones was traveling about 75 m.p.h. when he hit a warning torpedo on the train tracks and tried to stop the train.
Realizing he would be unable to avoid a collision, he told his fireman, Sim Webb, to jump from the train and save his life. The move secured Jones’ place in not only railroad history, but American folklore.
Jones, who lived in Jackson at the time of his death, is immortalized in song and folklore.
Today, his house is a museum. Although it has been moved from its original location, it is open to the public and features a wide array of exhibits, including railroad memorabilia and Jones’ personal effects.
A life-sized replica of Illinois Central engine No. 382 – the locomotive Jones was engineering on his last trip – sits behind Jones’ house. The actual locomotive was repaired after the wreck and ran for 35 years before being scrapped.
The museum’s replica formerly ran on the Clinchfield Railroad as engine No. 99. The locomotive was restored and moved to the museum.
Published in the May 2005 edition of The Cross-Tie.