14 March 2007

"Casey Jones you better watch your speed..."

Happy Birthday wishes go out to the toughest railroad engineer who ever lived---Casey Jones, born on this date in 1863.

Despite being one of the most accomplished and reliable engineers of his day, Jones is best known for the famous crash in which he refused to jump from the train like a captain going down with his ship. Jones saved a lot of lives that day, even though he was severely wounded.

His story was immortalized in folk songs...and no matter what the Grateful Dead tell you, he was NOT "high on cocaine."

Here is the entry for Casey Jones from the American National Biography:

Jones, Casey (14 Mar. 1863-30 Apr. 1900), railroad engineer and folk hero, was born John Luther Jones in southwest Missouri, the son of Frank Jones, a schoolteacher, and Ann Nolen Jones. He was the oldest of five children. In 1876 the family moved to Cayce, Kentucky, the town that would be the origin of his nickname and where he was first exposed to railroading. Jones married Jane Brady on 25 November 1886; they had three children.

Jones's initial railroad experience was as a "cub" (beginner) telegraph operator with the M & O Railroad at Columbus, Kentucky, in 1878 when he was only fifteen. A few months later he began working as a brakeman on the line between Columbus and Jackson, Tennessee. In order to achieve his long-range goal of becoming an engineer, Jones transferred again, this time becoming a fireman on the M & O line between Jackson, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama.

In March 1888 Jones moved to the Illinois Central as fireman on the Water Valley and Jackson (Tennessee) Districts of the Mississippi Division. Records of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen's lodge in Water Valley, Mississippi, show that Jones joined on 21 July 1890. He was promoted to engineer in February 1891, and his name first appears on the register book of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers lodge at Water Valley on 10 March 1891. Jones maintained memberships in both labor organizations.

In the summer of 1893, the Chicago World's Fair was attracting huge crowds. When a call went out for engineers, Jones spent that summer in suburban service in Chicago. It was here that he first saw the 638, the Illinois Central freight engine on display at the fair. At the closing of the fair, the 638 was to be sent to the Mississippi Division. Jones asked for and received permission to run the engine back to Water Valley. It was the beginning of a long association.

Over the years Jones had his share of extra passenger runs, and he liked the work and the pay. Passenger runs offered a much shorter working day, better pay, and considerable prestige, all of which appealed to the young engineer. His first opportunity at a regular passenger job came in February 1900 when W. W. "Bill" Hatfield transferred from Memphis, Tennessee, back to a run out of Water Valley, Mississippi. Jones applied for Hatfield's old job, even though it meant moving his family to Memphis and leaving the 638.

The new position was a test of Jones's ability as an engineer. The Illinois Central had been regularly shortening the running time of its passenger trains between Chicago and New Orleans. The new schedules posed an increasingly daunting challenge for the engineer. On the night of 29 April 1900, Jones and his fireman, Sim Webb, left Memphis one hour and thirty-five minutes late because the train had not come in on time. When he stopped for water at Grenada, Mississippi, Jones had already made up fifty minutes. By the time he reached Goodman, Mississippi, he was only five minutes late.

As Jones headed south, the stage was being set for his tragic wreck. A freight train with a broken air hose was sidetracked at Vaughan, Mississippi, and several of its cars were out on the main line. When Jones saw the cars, he slowed the engine to about 30 miles per hour. His fireman, Sim Webb, jumped to safety. Seconds later, Jones's engine, the 382, crashed into the caboose and several of the cars and finally stopped. Jones was mortally wounded in the throat by a bolt or piece of splintered wood.

Like the names of many other railroad engineers who lost their lives during this period, Casey Jones's name might have faded into obscurity were it not for Wallace Saunders, a laborer at the railroad shop in Canton, Mississippi, who made up a song about the accident. An Illinois Central engineer, William Leighton, heard it and mentioned it to his brothers, vaudeville performers Frank and Bert Leighton. The Leighton brothers sang a version of "Casey Jones" in various theaters around the country. By the time the song spread across the country, America had a new folk hero.

Why Jones did not jump is a question that has been discussed by railroad enthusiasts for many years. Railroad historian Bruce Gurner's explanation is as good as any. "You have to understand that Casey loved his job, his engine and the railroad," Gurner notes. "If there was one chance in a million he could do something, he wanted to be there to do it."


Anonymous said...

I remember playing at casey jones with my brothers on a George Stevenson pump engine near my old house. I also remember a version of that song saying that Jones was a scab working when others were on strike to improve safety; and the reason he dies was that the tracks were no good.

Anonymous said...

correction: Joe Hill wrote a song "casey Jones the union scab" in 1911 during a strike that lasted from 1911 to 1915.