Monday, March 11, 2019

Tennessee Railroads and Casey Jones: A brief history...

By Andrew McMahan

Tennessee has a rich railroading history. The state chartered several railroads before the Civil War, creating a system of track that was strategically vital for both Union and Confederate forces. These lines were also important for trade, turning a few Tennessee towns into shipping hubs. Until the construction of modern highways during the twentieth century, railroads were the dominant form of long-distance travel for both passengers and freight. One of the most famous railroad dramas in the United States had a strong connection to Tennessee.

The train engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones, now a folk hero, was born in a rural section of Missouri. As a boy, he moved with his family to Cayce, Kentucky. He later acquired the nickname “Casey” as a reference to his hometown. He subsequently moved to Jackson, Tennessee, where he married Janie Brady on November 25, 1886. He continued living in Jackson with his wife and eventually had three children.


Marriage record for John Luther "Casey" Jones and Janie Brady. Madison County Marriages Vol. I


Casey Jones had shown interest in the railroad as a young boy, and endeavored to become an engineer upon adulthood. He achieved this dream working for the Illinois Central Railroad. Jones was held in high esteem by his employers and fellow railroad workers and was known to run his locomotive quickly in order ensure that his train arrived on time. A few of his coworkers admitted that Jones did take risks, however he had only nine reprimands for safety violations and had not committed any such violation in the year prior to his death.


Casey Jones' locomotive, Engine No. 382. Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection


After arriving in Memphis on the evening of April 29, 1900, having just completed a run, Jones and his fireman Sim Webb received word that the conductor of the south-bound passenger train the New Orleans Special, was sick and unable to perform his duties. Because no other engineer was available to make the run to Canton, Mississippi, Jones volunteered to take the sick man’s place and requested that his No. 382 be hooked up to the passenger cars. Jones climbed into the cab of No. 382 at 12:50 a.m., more than an hour and a half behind schedule, and ventured out into the foggy night. Determined to arrive on schedule, Jones ran the No. 382 at high speeds, sometimes traveling over 70 miles per hour, considerably faster than the normal 35 miles per hour average. Surprisingly, Jones was able to make up much of the lost time during his high-speed run. It looked as though Jones would be able to arrive in Canton on schedule.

A traffic jam had developed further down the line in Vaughan, just north of Canton. Jones received orders that the trains at Vaughan were to move from the main line to the siding so that he could pass by unimpeded. Unknown to Jones, one of the trains that he was to pass had suffered a malfunction which locked the brakes and stranded several freight cars and the caboose on the main track. He carried on barreling toward Canton. Jones rounded a blind curve just outside of Vaughan at high speed and was suddenly met by a caboose sitting on the track. Jones told Webb to jump, and in a desperate effort to stop the train the engineer applied the brakes, shut the throttle, and pulled back the reverse lever. Webb jumped from the locomotive, sustaining minor injuries. Although witnesses claimed Jones was able to slow the locomotive from 75 to about 35 miles per hour, No. 382 plowed through the caboose and several freight cars before derailing. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Casey Jones was “. . . found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and the right arm torn from its socket.” However, thanks to his efforts, none of the other employees or passengers was killed or suffered serious injuries. His body was returned to Jackson and buried.


Sheet music for "Casey Jones." Kenneth D. Rose Sheet Music Collection


The circumstances surrounding the accident remained the subject of debate for years afterward. The Illinois Central’s official report stated that Jones had not heeded signals of the flagman or the warning torpedo placed on the track to warn the oncoming New Orleans Special about the stalled freight train. (A warning torpedo is a device placed on top of the track that emits a loud bang when run over by a train, signaling the crew to stop.) The IC maintained that Jones was solely responsible for the collision because he failed to acknowledge these warnings. However, Webb claimed that there was no torpedo on the track or flagman to alert the train.

Railroad accidents were not uncommon during this time, yet Jones became a folk hero after his death. Wallace Saunders, an African American engine wiper working for the IC, devised several verses about his friend’s tragic demise. The song proved popular among railroad men and Saunders frequently sang the tune for others. Soon after, two vaudeville performers incorporated the song into their act. The Southern California Music Company copyrighted the song “Casey Jones,” and T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton took credit for the words and music respectively. “Casey Jones” became a hit in the United States and around the world. Millions of copies of the sheet music were sold. Although he originally created the tune, Saunders never received any form of payment or royalties.


Sim Webb, the fireman on No. 382, talks about the famous wreck during the opening ceremony of the Casey Jones Museum in Jackson, TN. Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection


Jones’ legacy lives on in Jackson, Tennessee. In 1956, the town opened the Casey Jones Railroad Museum in the house where he and his family lived at the time of his death. Janie Jones and Sim Webb were both present at the grand opening, along with Governor Frank Clement and several other Tennessee politicians. The museum celebrates Casey’s life as well as the age of steam engines. Some rooms in the house are furnished as they were when the Jones’ lived there, while others show artifacts and exhibits related to railroad history in the United States.


Casey Jones Museum in Jackson, TN, September 9, 1966. Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection


Janie Jones at the Casey Jones Museum opening, April 30, 1956. Casey’s portrait is in the background. Dept. of Conservation Photograph Collection



The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett

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