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The Story of Casey Jones

A portrait of Casey Jones (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Those who know me well know I’m a Deadhead, a fan of the legendary rock band, The Grateful Dead. Even though they have disbanded and no longer record or tour, I still enjoy listening to the music. One of their songs is named “Casey Jones” and it starts off “Ridin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better, watch your speed.” The song is about the dangers of cocaine and, knowing that Casey Jones died in a major train collision, I was curious if drugs were involved. At the time cocaine was legal and very popular. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes used it in the stories, perhaps because Doyle did in real life. So, was Casey Jones a cocaine addict?

His Early Life 

Casey was born Jonathan Luther Jones on 14 Mar 1863 in the town of Jackson, Tennessee. As a boy he lived near the town of Cayce, Kentucky and, although he spelled it ‘Casey’, he took the town’s name as his nickname. On 25 Nov 1886 he married Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady whose father owned the boarding house where Casey lived. Janie was a Catholic and, in order to make her happy, Casey had been baptized into the Catholic Church two weeks earlier. The two had a reputation of being quiet-living teetotalers. They bought a house at 211 West Chester Street in Jackson and raised three children.

His Railroad Career

Casey got a job with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. He did a good job and was quickly promoted, first to brakeman and then to fireman. In 1887 an epidemic of yellow fever struck the Illinois Central Railroad which provided some opportunities. Casey went to work for the IC as a fireman on the route between Jackson, Tennessee and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Besides being good at his job, Casey had a special talent with the train whistle. He made a whistle of six thin tubes with the shortest being half the length of the longest. It produced a sound similar to the call of a whip-poor-will and it became his trademark.

In 1893 Chicago hosted the World’s Columbian Exposition celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World. The Illinois Central was given the job of shuttling the people from the Van Buren Station downtown to the site of the fair in Jackson Park. Casey and Janie spent the summer in Chicago and Casey got his introduction to passenger service. He liked it.

The IC’s display at the World’s Fair featured engine No. 638, a huge engine designed for hauling freight. It was to go into service on Casey’s route and Casey got the job of delivering it. He continued to operate it until he was transferred to Memphis in February of 1900 to handle the passenger route.

In 1895 Jones proved himself to be a hero. A group of children had darted across the tracks about 60 yards ahead of the train. All of them cleared it but one little girl who froze. Casey climbed down onto the cowcatcher and reached out as far as he could grabbing the little girl.

Those who worked with Casey viewed him as a bit of a risk-taker. During his career he was issued nine citations for rules infractions with a total of 145 days of suspension. This was not considered severe. During the year before his death, he received no citations.

In 1900 Casey was given the passenger route between Memphis, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi, one of four routes that comprised the run from Chicago to New Orleans. It was considered to be a “Cannonball”, a term referring to any fast run.

His Death

Details over the death of Casey Jones are not certain. There are three different accounts circulating regarding minor details. All of the accounts, however, agree that Casey had been given an additional run because one of the other men had taken ill.

The train departed Memphis at 12:50 am, 75 minutes late because it was late in arriving. Jones was operating a fast engine, had a good fireman assigned to him (Simeon T. Webb) and was only hauling six cars so he felt good about getting back on schedule. However, it was foggy so visibility was reduced and there were several tricky curves.

Jones was able to shave off a substantial amount of time but, when he reached Durant, Mississippi, he was ordered to go on the siding at Goodman, Mississippi so that another train could pass. (A siding is a section of track used for getting a train out of the way so that a train behind it can go ahead.) This only added five minutes to his schedule. Since the stretch ahead of his was fairly fast. He was certain he could make it up. He was to meet up with a train that, he was told, should be on the siding giving Casey the right-of-way. What he wasn’t told is that the train was longer than normal and spilled over from the siding onto the main line. They were planning a maneuver to remedy the situation but they were counting on Jones being late. By this time he had caught up.

A curve in the track blocked his view until it was too late. When Casey saw it he yelled to his fireman to jump which saved his life. Casey tried to stop his train but it plowed through a wooden caboose, a car loaded with hay, another car loaded with corn and a third car loaded with wood before derailing. Casey was the only fatality. When his body was pulled from the train, he was still clutching the whistle cord and the brake. He had saved the lives of his passengers.

Casey’s body was returned to Jackson, Tennessee and his funeral was held in the same church where he and Jamie had been married fourteen years earlier.

Casey is remembered in the folk song “The Ballad of Casey Jones” which was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash and The Grateful Dead. It is not the same song I mentioned earlier.

Nothing about the life of Casey Jones indicates any sort of substance abuse. Robert Hunter, who wrote the lyrics, has said that he just thought it was a catchy phrase and jotted it down. Later he decided to build a song around it. It didn’t really have anything to do with the real Casey Jones.

Text © 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

#history #USA #American #trains #railroads #railfans

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  1. Thank you for this – I enjoyed reading it and learned something new. There was a similar rail disaster in the UK in 1928 (at Darlington), when a mainline train hit the back of another that was sticking out from a siding.

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