Who was the real Casey Jones?


Dear Straight Dope: Was Casey Jones really “Driving that train / High on cocaine,” or was this something the Grateful Dead just made up? Wright Blan, Sugar Hill, Georgia

Elendil’s Heir, Guest Contributor replies:

The most famous railroad engineer of all time has been immortalized by musicians as diverse as Mississippi John Hurt, Josh Ritter, Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Tom Russell, Kris Kristofferson, and the New Christy Minstrels, but leave it to the Dead to suggest that nose candy played a role in his demise. Their take on the subject, from the 1970 album Workingman’s Dead, is, to say the least, not a reliable account of Casey Jones’s last run. John Luther “Casey” Jones may have been going too fast that fateful night near Vaughan, Mississippi, but there’s no evidence that he was high on cocaine or any other illicit substance.

Jones was born March 14, 1863, in southeastern Missouri; no one’s quite sure where exactly. He came from a railroading family and was, by all accounts, determined to drive a locomotive from an early age. All three of his brothers became railroad men, too, but none came anywhere near his level of fame. Jones’s family eventually moved to Cayce, Kentucky, and the town’s name became, with a slight spelling change, his nickname – just about every railroader had one. He worked his way up through the Mobile & Ohio Railroad and then, beginning in 1888, the mighty Illinois Central, displaying a natural knack for the business as a telegraph operator, an engineman, and soon the top job, engineer. After just four years, according to the early Jones biographer Fred J. Lee, “Casey Jones had practically undisputed control over the road between Chicago and Water Valley, Mississippi.”

In the years following the Civil War the railroads had become crucial to American commerce. Then, as now, people wanted to go fast. Lee writes, “Fast trains meant highly skilled engineers… who could drive through in record time. Speed, speed and more speed! It was trains like these that Casey longed to haul – so that he could show there were records to be broken and new records to be set.… Faster schedules meant better business and that’s what the [Illinois Central] wanted.”

By all accounts, Jones liked to go fast, and his employers did nothing to discourage him. He was, Lee wrote, an “outstanding genius as [an] engineer and railroad man.” After less than two years with the Illinois Central, he was put on a fast freight run between Champaign, Illinois, and Chicago, a crowded and busy route to which only the best engineers were assigned. He was hailed as a hero after an incident in the railway yards of Michigan, Mississippi, in which he climbed down onto the pilot, or cowcatcher, of his slowly moving engine to scoop a scared little girl off the track. Jones developed a distinctive “whippoorwill” whistle pattern that marked his passage wherever his Engine No. 638 went.

He had one minor accident, in Toone, Tennessee, when the so-called Irish Mail train unexpectedly backed out onto his track and he couldn’t stop in time. No one was hurt, but the Illinois Central was sued by a clergyman who’d been aboard the Irish Mail and somehow lost his Bible in the collision. A generous court awarded the clergyman $1,200, a healthy sum for a Bible even now. Jones’s safety record was otherwise spotless. He was widely popular with his fellow railroadmen, one of whom, Bose Lashley, said at a gala 1896 testimonial dinner held for Jones in Jackson, Tennessee, that Casey “deserves every honor you can give him.” Another speaker, Major E.S. Hosford, said, “Show me the man talented far beyond the average who yet retains the affectionate regard of his fellow workers, and I’ll show you a man who deserves every living evidence of that esteem.” During the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, Jones made good money running a shuttle train between Van Buren Street and the fairgrounds, but he yearned to return to the long routes.

By 1900, Casey Jones had been promoted to the Illinois Central’s fastest run: the prestigious but demanding Cannonball Express, connecting Memphis, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi. Late on April 29 of that year he arrived in Memphis to learn that his friend and fellow engineer Sam Tate had suddenly taken ill. The station agent asked Jones to take Tate’s train, pulled by Engine No. 382, to Canton. Jones had just finished a long run from Canton and customarily would have gone off duty at that time. Although No. 382 was already an hour and fifteen minutes late – almost an eternity, by the railroad timetables of the day – Jones agreed to make the run back down to Canton; it was understood that he would make up the time as best he could. For Jones, proud of his reputation for on-time arrivals, this was just the sort of challenge he couldn’t pass up. At 12:50 AM on April 30, the signalman waved the train out of the Poplar Street station, and Jones, fireman (read: coal heaver) Simeon T. “Sim” Webb, and 12 passenger and mail coaches carrying more than a hundred people were under way.

Jones knew the route well: he had to make three regularly scheduled stops along the way, so arriving at Canton at something like the scheduled hour would mean averaging 65 miles per hour on the straightaways and sometimes getting the Cannonball up to more than 100 mph. He had done such things before, though, and was undoubtedly confident that he could do them again.

The train hurtled through the night, eating up the miles and making up lost time. By the time the Cannonball reached Durant, Mississippi, only 35 miles from the end of the run, Jones had nearly gotten her back on schedule. “Oh, Sim,” said Jones happily to his fireman, “the old girl’s got her high-heeled slippers on tonight!” Unbeknownst to them, however, there was an uncleared logjam of other trains at Vaughan, just down the track. An air line hose had burst on one of these trains, leaving a caboose and several other cars in the Cannonball’s way.

It’s still disputed whether Casey Jones was going too fast under the circumstances. None of his peers suggested he was, though, and most rail historians today think he wasn’t. But even Jones’s critics don’t dispute his heroism early that morning. At 3:52 AM the engineer, seeing the lights of the stranded caboose ahead, shouted to his fireman to jump to safety, and “dynamited” his engine, trying to stop it in the shortest possible space. “In virtually one motion,” Lee writes,

the throttle was thrust in, the Johnson-bar tugged into reverse, the airbrake lever shifted to emergency and the sand dome opened wide. Yet Casey found time to bear down on the whistle cord to shriek a warning. The terrific crash which immediately ensued jarred the countryside and was heard for miles around. The caboose was shattered to matchwood. Scattering splinters and broken, twisted metal in every direction, No. 382’s nose plowed into the next car, from whose wreckage dozens of bales of hay erupted, and on into the next car, showering tons of shelled corn over the right of way.

The engine tore loose from its tender and hurtled from the track. Webb had leaped off in time; though he was knocked unconscious, he recovered from his injuries after just a few weeks. But Casey Jones, age 37, lay dead in the wreckage of his engine. He could have tried to jump away, too, but instead stayed at his post to try to save lives and minimize the damage caused in the collision. Miraculously, no one else was killed. Jones left behind a widow, Jane Brady Jones, and three little children.

The first song known to have been written about Casey Jones was by Wallace Saunders, an engine wiper for the Illinois Central; Mississippi John Hurt popularized it. Soon tall tales began to be told about the speedy and heroic Casey, and it wasn’t long before he entered the realm of American myth. A historic marker was placed in his honor in Cayce, Kentucky, in 1938. U.S. Senator Alben Barkley, later to serve as Harry Truman’s vice president, gave the dedication address, describing Jones as a “real hero” and saying the marker was an “unusual honor to an unusual man.” Jones’s widow, his son Charles, his daughter Helen, and two grandchildren were in attendance. The marker reads, in part, “Famous for bravery and courage, the name of Casey Jones lives deeply set into the hearts of American people in both tradition and song.”

Elendil’s Heir, Guest Contributor

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.