“…Through South Memphis Yards on a fly
rain been a fallin’ and the water was high
Everybody knew by the engine’s moan
that the man at the throttle was Casey Jones
Well Jones said fireman now don’t you fret
Sam Webb said we ain’t a givin’ up yet
We’re eight hours late with the southbound mail
We’ll be on time or we’re leavin’ the rails
Casey Jones climbed in the cabin…”
–John S. Hurt lyrics ©Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
John Luther Jones was born in rural southeast Missouri on March 14, 1864. John’s family moved to a farm near Cayce, Kentucky, where he grew up. His friends gave him the nickname “Cayce” after the little town, John decided to spell it “Casey”. Jones married Mary Joanna Brady on November 25, 1886. The couple bought a home in Jackson, Tennessee where they raised three children.
Casey Jones’ first railroad job was as brakeman for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad on the Columbus, Kentucky to Jackson, Tennessee line. He was soon promoted to fireman on the Jackson to Mobile line. Jones took advantage of a yellow fever epidemic in the summer of 1887. The disease had thinned the ranks of the neighboring Illinois Central Railroad.
On March 1, 1888, he got a job with the ICRR as fireman for a freight locomotive that ran from Jackson, Tennessee to Water Valley, Mississippi. On February 23, 1891, Casey was promoted to engineer. He was supposedly so punctual, that legend says people set their pocketwatches by his train’s passing.
According to legend, Casey was famous for his unique drawn-out style with a locomotive whistle. The note started softly, then rose to its peak, then died away slowly to silence. The style was emulated, but never perfectly copied by other railroaders.
Jones was promoted again in February of 1900 to passenger rail engineer for the route between Canton, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee. His “cannonball express” ran the fast passenger and mail service. Jones was one of the few engineers who could actually accomplish the quick, scheduled times the railroad had promised.
The story about Casey’s last run is controversial because there are several versions about it. According to Casey’s widow, Mary, Casey and his fireman, African-American Simeon Webb arrived at Memphis at 10:00 pm April 29, 1900, during a rainshower. Casey and his crew were in the process of checking out to go to their homes. An office worker then yelled, “Joe Lewis has just been taken with cramps, and can’t take his train out tonight.” Jones volunteered to run the express.
At 11:00, an hour and a half behind schedule, Casey and Webb rolled the train out of the South Memphis railyards. As soon as possible, Casey highballed (speeding and risk-taking) the train to make up for lost time.
The train was clamoring along at about 70 miles an hour, when it rounded a long, winding curve just outside of Vaughn, Mississippi at about 4:00 am April 30th. There was a long sideline near the end of the curve.
During this run, two separate sections of a long freight train were parked on the siding. The rear section was too long to fit onto the siding, so some cars remained on the main track. The switching crew believed they could clear the mainline before the arrival of the cannonball express. However, they miscalculated. Casey’s speed was higher than they expected.
Within a mile of the siding intersection, Jones and Webb spotted the slow-moving boxcars. The two knew there was no way to prevent a collision. Legend says that Jones ordered Webb to jump free of the train. Then Jones threw the engine in full reverse and applied the air-brakes. At about 300 feet from the siding Webb jumped and landed in a patch of bushes. The last thing he heard before being knocked unconscious was the screaming whistle.
Jones was only two minutes behind schedule and managed to slow down to 35 miles an hour when “Ole 382” smashed through a caboose, then three other cars. Jones’ pocketwatch stopped at 3:52. Because Jones had remained on board, officials said that his actions saved all the passengers from injury and death. Popular, folktales say that when Jones’ body was pulled out of the wreckage, his hands still grasped the brake handle and the whistle cord.
Two days later, Jones’ funeral service took place near his home in Jackson, Tennessee. He was interred at Mount Calvary Cemetary.
Wallace Saunders was Jones’ “engine wiper”. Jones was one of Saunders’ few white friends and the two had been very close. Saunders composed a song about Casey a couple of days after the accident then sang it from time to time as a tribute to his friend. It was the first of several songs about the Casey Jones’ legend to be written and performed. Some Casey Jones related songs were recorded by such artists as Hank Snow, Kris Kristofferson, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, The Grateful Dead, and Motorhead.