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Casey Jones

his "need for speed" made him famous

Casey Jones

John Luther Jones was born in a rural area of southeastern Missouri on March 14, 1864. His parents, Frank (a teacher) and Ann (Nolan), moved the family to Cacey, Kentucky, and it was there that he became interested in railroading; his nickname "Casey" also originated there.

At the age of 15, Jones moved to Columbus, Kentucky, and began working as a telegrapher for the Mobile and Ohio railroad. In 1884, he moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he was promoted at M&O to the position of flagman.

While living in a boarding house in Jackson, Jones met and fell in love with his landlord's daughter, Joanne "Janie" Brady . The couple wed on November 26, 1886, and moved into a place of their own in Jackson. They would have two sons and a daughter together.

Jones was successful at M&O, quickly moving up the ranks. In 1891, he was offered a job at Illinois Central Railroad as an engineer. Jones soon earned a reputation as an engineer who would always stay on schedule, even if it meant pushing his train to great and sometimes dangerous speeds. Although this trait made him a popular employee, it also earned him a reputation for being reckless, and he was cited at least nine times for safety violations. The public began to recognize Jones for the "whippoorwill call" he would make on the engine's whistle while driving through towns. In February 1900, he was promoted to one of the fastest passenger routes of the day, the No. 2 between Canton, Mississippi, and Memphis, Tennessee.

His Final Run

On April 29, 1900 Jones was at Poplar Street Station in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven his No. 2 from Canton (with his assigned Engine No. 384). Normally he would have stayed at Memphis for a layover, but when the scheduled engineer of the No. 1 (with its Engine No. 382), Sam Tate, came down sick Jones volunteered to take the train back to Canton. His fireman for this run would be Simeon T. Webb. The six-car No. 1 was scheduled to depart from Memphis at 11:15 pm, but the change in engineers delayed that departure until 12:50 am, putting it 95 minutes behind schedule, but Jones was determined to get the train to Canton on time.

The first stretch of the run took Jones 100 miles south to Grenada, Mississippi. with a water stop at the halfway point, Sardis, Mississippi. Despite heavy fog and miles of shaky rails, Jones pushed Engine #382 up to 80 miles per hour, and when he pulled into Grenada he had made up 55 minutes of the 95 minute delay. Jones made up another 15 minutes in the 25-mile stretch from Grenada to Winona. The 30-mile stretch from Winona to Durant had no speed-restricted curves, and by the time he got to Durant he was almost on time.

At Durant, Jones received orders to take to the siding at Goodman (eight miles south of Durant) and wait for the No. 2 passenger train to pass before continuing on to Vaughan. His orders also instructed him to meet passenger train No. 26 at Vaughan, but since No. 26 was a local passenger train in two sections and would be in the siding he would have priority over it. Jones pulled out of Goodman, only five minutes behind schedule, and with 25 miles of fast track ahead feeling confident that he would get into Vaughan at 4:05 am, "as advertised."

While Jones sped south, three separate trains jockeyed for position at Vaughan. Freights #72 and #83 were both in the passing track, and there were more cars than the track would hold. It was necessary for these trains to move north or south to clear the main line switches in order to allow other trains to pass; this is known as a saw-by. Meanwhile, northbound local passenger #26 arrived from Canton and had to be sawed in on the house track west of the main line. As #83 and #72 sawed back south to clear the north passing track switch, an air hose broke on #72 and he couldn't move, leaving several cars of #83's train out on the main line above the north switch.

The No. 1 train was moving at about 75 miles per hour when she entered the 1.5-mile left-hand curve leading into the Vaughan station. Suddenly, Webb saw the red lights of the caboose on the main line and shouted "Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!" Jones responded by telling Webb to jump (which he did), reversing the throttle, and slamming the airbrakes into emergency stop, while also frantically sounding the engine's whistle. Jones had managed to reduce his speed from about 75 miles per hour to about 35 miles per hour when Engine #382 plowed into and through a wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the track. Although several passengers were injured in the crash, the only fatality was Jones.

Although a formal investigation ultimately concluded that "Engineer Jones was solely responsible for the accident as consequence of not having properly responded to flag signals," he is still remembered as a hero by many for sacrificing his life to prevent the deaths of his passengers. He is buried in East Jackson, Tennessee's, Mount Calvary Cemetery.

The Biography Channel
Walter Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum

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This page was last updated on March 13, 2018.