Saturday, April 30, 2016

Casey Jones: the man, the event and the hero

Casey Jones, known as the Brave Engineer, is an American folk hero. April 30, 1900, he died when his passenger train collided with a stalled freight train at the Vaughan, Mississippi station on a foggy and rainy night. His dramatic death while trying to stop his train and save the lives of his passengers made him a hero. He was immortalized in a popular ballad song by his friend, Wallace Saunders.

Born Jonathan Luther Jones on March 14, 1863, Jones grew up near Cayce, Kentucky where he acquired the nickname, “Cayce” which he would later spell as “Casey.” He married Mary Joanna “Janie” Brady on November 25, 1886. They would have three children: Charles (1888-1977), Helen (1890-1979) and John Lloyd (1896-1934). By all accounts, Jones was a devoted family man. Jones was promoted to engineer on February 23, 1891. As railroading was a talent, Jones was recognized by his peers to be one of the best engineers in the business. He was known for his insistence to get the train in on time and never fall behind schedule. He was so punctual that people set their watches by him. He was also famous for his particular train whistle. Made of six thin tubes bound together, its unique sound involved a long-drawn out note which began softly, rose and then faded to a whisper. People living along the rail line would hear it and claim “There goes Casey Jones.” A bit of a risk taker, Jones was ambitious and eager to move up the ranks and serve on the better paying and more prestigious passenger trains.

In February 1900, Jones transferred to Memphis, Tennessee for the passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi. On April 30, Jones and his crew departed Memphis at 12:50 am, 75 minutes behind schedule. The weather was foggy and rainy with reduced visibility and tricky curves on this particular run. The run started well and Jones was able to gain momentum get back on schedule. Unknown to Casey, three separate trains were at the Vaughan station. The No. 83 train was stalled on the switch track, leaving the rear cars on the main line and in Jones’ path. As Jones approached, a left-hand curve blocked his view, it wasn’t until his fireman, Sim Webb cried, “Oh my Lord. There’s something on the main line.” Jones told Webb to jump and reversed the throttle and slammed on the airbrakes. He had reduced his speed from 75 mph to 35 mph when he hit. Because Jones stayed on board, it is believed he saved the passengers from serious injury and death. His watch stopped at time of impact at 3:52 am. Popular legend holds that when his body was found, he was still clutching the whistle cord and brake. The final accident report placed the responsibility on Jones who was said to have ignored the warning signals given by No. 83. His fireman, Webb, claimed and swore until his death in 1957, that they did not see or hear any warnings. Historians today dispute the official report. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe that an engineer of Jones’ experience would have ignored the different warnings that would have alerted him to the danger.

Casey Jones’ fame could be attributed to the traditional song, The Ballad of Casey Jones. Soon after his death, the song was first sung by engine wiper and friend of Jones, Wallace Saunders. He was known to sing and whistle the song to the tune of “Jimmie Jones.” Unfortunately, Saunders never copyrighted his lyrics, so it is difficult to known what his lyrics were. But the song would travel the country as railroaders picked up the song and vaudeville performers, T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton copyrighted their music and lyrics for the song. By WWI, dozens of versions of the song had been published and millions of copies were sold. The poet, Carl Sandburg, called Casey Jones – The Brave Engineer, the greatest ballad ever written. The song has been recorded numerous times and Casey Jones’ name has become a household name.

Casey Jones has become a mythological figure like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. He was a real life hero whose legend grew as people talked about him. He stayed on the train in order to slow it down and the save the lives of the passengers who was entrusted to his care. On this day, the 116th anniversary of his heroic act, I remember Casey Jones: the man, the legend.