By Robert Crowe
Casey Jones mounted to the cabin.
Casey Jones with the orders in his hand.
Casey Jones mounted to the cabin
As he made his farewell journey to the promise land.
So goes the song that immortalized a train engineer over 100 years ago.
John Jones was born near Cayce, Kentucky, where he acquired the nickname of “Cayce,” that he chose to spell as “Casey.” Born in 1863, Casey Jones was 37 years old when his train,
the Cannonball Express, collided with a stalled freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi.
For a train engineer, there were penalties for running late to your destinations. If you wanted promotions to the better jobs, you better be on time. Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions (speeding) in his career, with a total of 145 days suspended. But in the year prior to his death, he had not been cited for any rules infractions. Jones was a risk-taker, but he knew that the penalties were far more severe for running behind than breaking the rules.
The Cannonball Express (fast) train ran between Chicago, Illinois, and New Orleans, Louisiana. There were four links in the trip and Jones was the engineer for the run between Memphis, Tennessee, and Canton, Mississippi. Due to the late arrival of the previous link, his passenger train departed Memphis on the fatal run at 12:50 a.m., 75 minutes behind schedule.
At 3:52 a.m. on a foggy, rainy night, Jones had made up time and was only a few minutes behind schedule when he approached Vaughn, Mississippi. He was supposed to have clear track priority at Vaughn and there were trains on the side tracks. However, because of a malfunction, four waiting train cars “overlapped” onto the main through track. Casey saw the collision that was about to happen; he told his fireman to “jump” but he stayed with the train, his hands on the whistle and the brake. He had reduced his speed from 75 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour when he hit. Because Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he was believed to have saved the passengers from serious injury and death.
Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones was the only fatality of the collision. Legend has it that when his body was pulled from the wreckage, his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake.