Casey Jones' railroad blues

Way Back When

Folk hero: Legend of the engineer who refused to jump grew from a workman's song.

April 22, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Perhaps some railroader sitting in a roundhouse, locomotive cab or division headquarters, will remember the April 30, 1900, ride that took John Luther Jones, better known as Casey Jones, to the "Promised Land," and successfully transformed him into an American folk hero on the dimension of John Henry, Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed or Pecos Bill.

"Come all you rounders for I want you to hear, the story of a brave engineer," begins the Mississippi Delta blues-style song written by Wallace Saunders, an African-American who knew Jones and worked as an engine wiper in the Canton, Miss., roundhouse.

The story told of a brave engineer;

Casey Jones was the rounder's name,

On a heavy six-eight wheeler he rode to fame.

Legend has it William Leighton, an Illinois Central Railroad engineer, had heard Saunders singing his song in the railyards and offered him a pint of gin for the lyrics.

He gave the song to his two brothers, who performed it on the vaudeville stage and managed to turn it into a popular tune.

When T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton, also vaudevillians, revised the song in 1909, it not only swept the nation but also transformed Casey's last ride into a fictional account set to ragtime.

Milton Bagby, writing in American History last year, suggested that Jones would have simply been another statistic had someone not written a song about him.

"At the moment, Jones was just another unfortunate railroad employee killed on the job. With more than 2,000 railroad accidents in 1900 alone, many of them fatal, such stories were back-page news.

"If there was any controversy, the Illinois Central settled it promptly. Engineer Jones of the passenger train, who lost his life in the accident, was alone responsible,' read the company's accident report. The matter was forgotten," he writes.

Jones was already something of a legend at his death because he was a highly respected locomotive engineer among his peers and for his six-tone calliope whistling, which presaged his coming up the tracks in rural Mississippi.

Born John Luther Jones near Cayce, Ky., on March 14, 1864, he began his railroading career when he was 16, learning telegraph at the local rural depot. He hired out on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad as a brakeman in the 1880s and later advanced to fireman. He went to work for the Illinois Central in 1888 and was promoted to engineer.

A handsome man who stood 6-feet-4 with closely cropped hair, Jones was the epitome of the hard-driving engineer.

He married Janie Brady, the daughter of the owner of the railroad boardinghouse where he lived, and set up housekeeping in Jackson, Tenn.

It was there around the boardinghouse dinner table, filled with other men named Jones, that he picked up the nickname of "Casey," derived from his hometown.

It was raining when Jones and Sim Webb, his fireman, chugged into Memphis, after completing their northbound run from Canton.

The pair volunteered to take the southbound run of Train No. 1, The New Orleans Special, and not the fictional Cannonball, whose engineer had called off sick, on its 188-mile run to Canton.

By the time the train with engine No. 382 and 12 cars left Memphis, it was already 95 minutes behind schedule. Roaring southward at speeds near 100 mph, Jones managed to make up 60 minutes between Memphis and Grenada.

"We're going into Canton on time," he told Webb.

At Vaughn, Miss., there was trouble. Racing along at 75 mph at 3: 52 a.m., Jones rounded a curve and saw the red marker lights of a caboose directly ahead.

He plowed into the caboose and two boxcars of a stalled freight train that hadn't quite cleared the main track.

"Mr. Casey! We're going to hit something," testified Webb later.

"You jump, I'll stay!" he said.

"You jump, too," replied Webb.

"No, I'll stay at my post," said Jones.

"I obeyed his command," said Webb.

As the train roared ahead, Jones yanked back on the reverse lever, applied the brakes and sand in a desperate attempt to stop the skidding engine.

By the time No. 382 hit, he had reduced speed from 75 mph to between 35 and 50 mph, which probably averted even greater calamity.

Jones was mortally wounded in the throat as his engine came to rest on its side. Removed from the cab by railroad workers, he was placed on a baggage cart and taken to the Vaughn depot, where he later died.

In 1947, Lucius Beebe, journalist and noted railroad historian, and Charles Clegg, photographer, with Casey's widow watching, unveiled a monument at the railroader's grave in Jackson, Tenn.

The U.S. Post Office issued a stamp in 1950 bearing his likeness to honor the nation's railroaders.

Casey's widow, who never remarried, died in 1958. She was 92.

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