"Unlike many other legendary characters in American history, such as Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Casey Jones is a true one. Born in a simple song by a black man whose job it was to wipe clean steam engines, it captures the spirit of a proud America at the dawn of a new century.
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.
Still, few men become legends overnight. So it was with Casey Jones. It began on March 14, 1863 in the boot heel of Missouri, no one knows exactly where, when Jonathan Luther Jones was born. He was the first of five children of a country school teacher, Frank Jones, and his wife, Anne. In 1876 his family moved to Kentucky and settled in the small community of Cayce.
Fascinated by trains, Casey spent a lot of time at the bustling train depot in Cayce. In 1878, at the age of fifteen, he left home to become a railroad man. Traveling to nearby Columbus, Kentucky he took a job with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad as a telegrapher and later as a brakeman and fireman.
He moved to Jackson, Tennessee still in the employ of the M & O. The city of Jackson would have a profound influence on his life for it was here that he met and later married Janie Brady, whose mother ran a boarding house for railroad men. Their wedding ceremony took place at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Jackson on November 25th, 1886.
He also acquired the nickname of Casey at that same boarding house when a fellow railroader asked him where he was from. When he said Cayce, Kentucky the nickname was born.
Casey Jones' work in Jackson primarily involved freight service between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi. Both locations were busy and important shops for the Illinois Central Railroad. He developed close ties with both between 1890 and 1900.
In January, Casey was transferred from Jackson, Tennessee to Memphis for the passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi. This was one link of a four train run between Chicago and New Orleans.
Casey and Sim Webb pulled into Memphis on the morning of April 29th, 1900 from Canton, Mississippi where they were supposed to lay over until the next day before making the run back. Sometime during the day, Sam Tate, the regular engineer, had become ill and Casey Jones agreed to take his place and make the return to Canton that night. He asked for his regular engine No. 382 and roundhouse workers installed a new six tone Calliope whistle on it. No. 1 out of Chicago was late and Casey and Sim did not leave the downtown Memphis station until approximately 12:30 am...an hour and a half late.
Casey Jones was known for his insistence that he 'get there on the advertised' and he was determined to arrive in Canton on schedule. Sim shoveled on coal and Casey poured on steam. They made up sixty minutes on the 102 mile stretch to Grenada, Mississippi. It was 23 miles to Grenada to Winona and Casey made up another 15 minutes. By the time he got to Durant he was almost on time.
By the time he reached Vaughan, Mississippi he was only 2 minutes behind schedule. Fate was quickly determining Casey's destiny at Vaughan. Three other trains were there. One had moved off the main line and two freights were ordered to another side track but their combined length was longer than the siding and four cars extended onto the track at the north end. As they prepared for a 'saw by' to let Casey pass, an air hose broke on Train No. 72 locking the brakes, leaving the last four cars of Number 83 on the main line.
Casey was approaching Vaughan unaware of the danger ahead and as he rounded the last part of a blinding 'S' curve fireman Sim Webb looked out and saw the red lights of the caboose on the main line. 'Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!' Sim yelled to Casey who immediately reversed the throttle, applied brakes and reverse lever and sounded a long blast on his new whistle.
'Jump, Sim, Jump!' were the last words Casey Jones would ever say. About three hundred feet before impact Sim swung down as low as he could, jumped and was knocked unconscious.
The engine plowed through the wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the track.
Close beside the twisted rail Casey Jones lay dead. No other person was killed or seriously injured. The time was 3:52 am, April 30th, 1900. The official accident report said that 'Engineer Jones was solely responsible having disregarded the signals given by Flagman Newberry'. Shortly after the accident and until his death in 1957, Sim Webb maintained that 'we saw no flagman or flare, we heard no torpedoes'.
Casey's tragic death was mourned not only by his family but also his friends, many of whom worked for the railroad. A black man named Wallace Saunders worked in the roundhouse in Canton. He was an engine wiper and loved to sing. He remembered Casey in rhyme and a catchy tune that soon would become a favorite of the fellow workers and eventually the world.
William Leighton who worked out of the Canton yards passed Wallace's song along to his brothers, Bert and Frank, who were vaudeville performers and would be instrumental in spreading the new ballad ...'The Ballad of Casey Jones'...across the land.
A professional songwriting team, Siebert and Newton, copyrighted the song in 1909 and it quickly became one of the most famous songs in America. It was truly a song of universal appeal. In the 1930's a book, motion picture and a radio series added to the legend. The historic home of Casey Jones opened as a museum in April of 1956. The home was restored and filled with memorabilia of the great days of steam railroading.
On October 23, 1980 Casey Jones home and one week later the engine were moved to Casey Jones Village. After careful restoration, the museum was reopened to the general public on April 30, 1981. This date was the eighty-first anniversary of Casey Jones' tragic accident and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the museum.
The relocation to Casey Jones Village gave the Casey Jones story accessibility to the American traveling public being located seconds off Interstate 40. We feel deeply that Casey Jones has been and will forever be the personification of heroism and romance in his dedication to the ideal of work and duty, even at the risk of death. We like to believe that Casey somehow knew, when he saw the lights of the other train that dark foggy night of April 30th, 1900, that, yes, he was going to die, but that because of his sense of value of a human life, stayed with his engine in a desperate attempt to try to slow it down as much as possible before crashing into history.
Casey Jones was the only person killed. Every passenger on his train was saved because of his heroic actions. We think what he did is worth honoring."
Written by T. Clark Shaw, Brooks Shaw's Old Country Store Chief Executive Officer
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