John Luther “Casey” Jones, 1863–1900 “The Brave Engineer.” No other railroad engineer in the annals of American Railroading has received higher praise or has been more vilified. Casey’s final moments have grown from an error in judgment or momentary miscalculation into one of the most controversial legends from turn of the century steam locomotion. His famous train whistle still rings out in the many depictions of his famous last ride.
According to testified accounts, Casey and engine 382, which had been built by the Rogers Locomotive and Machine works in 1898, with Sim Webb as fireman were listed out of Memphis Tennessee as train #1 on the night of April 29, 1900. The train with six passenger cars was southbound for Canton, Mississippi. Casey had picked up the ride because of a sudden illness to Samuel Tate, the regular engineer. According to the trains operating conductor J. C. Turner, the scheduled departure time for the Illinois Central Railroad train #1 was 11:15. Records indicate the 832 left at 12:50, one hour and thirty-five minutes late.
A good engine, a good engineer, a good fireman, and a light train made the perfect setting for a record “cannonball” run. Casey made that a record run, if the quoted departure time of 12:50 was correct, because Casey made it to Goodman on time to pass the ICRR’s #2 heading north.
While Casey was rolling south, the stage was being set for his legendary wreck at Vaughn. Freight engines #72 and #83 were working themselves onto the passing track at Vaughan. But the double header was pulling more cars than the siding could hold. Known in railroad parlance as a “saw-by” it was necessary for these trains to move north or south in sequence to clear the main line switches in order to allow other trains to pass. Casey had run this route before and expected the Freight to clear by the time 832 made the by-pass.
In the meantime a local northbound passenger train #26 arrived from Canton and had to be sawed in on the house track west of the main line. When #83 and #72 sawed back south to clear the north passing track switch an air house broke on #72 and it couldn’t move. That left several cars of #83′s freight train out on the main line above the north switch.
Casey’s 382 under full steam crashed through the caboose and several freight cars, coming to rest on the right side of the right-of-way pointing north. Fatally wounded by a gash in his throat, Casey was found in the wreckage with one hand on the throttle and the other on the cord of his signature whistle. He was carried half a mile to the depot were he died lying on a baggage wagon. Newspaper accounts of Casey dying at his post in the ill fated engine marked the beginning of a railroad legend.
The Illinois Central Railroad’s formal investigation concluded that “Engineer Jones was solely responsible for the accident as consequence of not having properly responded to flag and torpedo signals.”
Other engineers died in wrecks just as tragic as the one at Vaughan, with only a brief account in the local paper. This probably would have been Casey’s lot except for the song, Casey Jones.
The song has been attributed to a black engine wiper in the railroad shop at Canton named Wallace Saunders. Casey made friends easily and was popular with shop workers. That may be how Casey and Wallace knew each other. Saunders supposedly composed the tribute and sang it to the tune of a popular song of the time called “Jimmie Jones.”
An Illinois Central engineer William Leighton heard the song and passed it on to his brothers, Frank and Bert. The Leighton’s were a vaudeville team and performed the song in theaters around the country. T. Lawrence Seibert was credited with the words and Eddie Newton the music when it was published and offered for sale in 1909. By World War I dozens of versions had been published and millions of copies sold creating a new American folk hero.
Disney portrayed Casey Jones in seven distinct cartoon shorts based upon versions of the song. ”The Brave Engineer” debuted in 1950 on the 50th anniversary of the ill fated wreck of the 832 carrying the legend of Casey Jones on to a new generation.
Riley’s Railhouse invites you to spend a relaxing, but fun weekend at their bed and breakfast: 1914 New York Central Freight Station, situated on Norfolk & Southern’s double main line. Located in the heart of downtown Chesterton Indiana, you will experience some of the best rail-fan activity in the Midwest. After decades of accumulating railroad antiques, art, and memorabilia; and over two years of extensive restoration and renovation; in 2010 they’ve completed the transformation of Chesterton’s old freight station into a venue for their collection. Website: www.rileysrailhouse.com