The day Casey Jones wrecked his train, he began his run in Jackson, Tennessee by blowing his special Whippoorwill Whistle like he did every day. Railroad men swear that no engineer has ever been able to imitate his method of blowing a locomotive whistle, producing the deep, musical notes that sounded exactly like the song of the whippoorwill.
Casey Jones wasn’t the hot rod engineer’s birth name. He was christened John Luther Jones when he was born on March 14, 184, in Cayce, Kentucky. John wanted to be a railroad engineer almost from the moment he was born. He still wanted to be an engineer when he went to work as an apprentice telegraph operator in the office of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to add to the earnings of his schoolteacher father.
All of the time he was learning to tap keys and translate staccato clicks into railroad orders, John was fascinated by the engines thundering by. He didn’t want to be a station master, he wanted to be close to the shiny black locomotives, so he applied for a position as a flagman on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
Eventually, John was sent to Jackson, Tennessee, and boarded at a home there. At this home, the six-foot, handsome, John Luther Jones met the two people who were to influence his life the most. He was introduced to Miss Janie Brady, the daughter of the lady who ran the boarding house. And he also met a young man boarding there. The young man asked John Luther the name of his hometown.
“Cayce, Kentucky,” John Luther answered.
“Then we’ll just call you Casey,” the boarder said.
The nickname stuck.
After a time, Casey was made a fireman on the Mobile and Ohio and he and Janie Brady were married. Two weeks after their wedding, Casey left the Mobile and Ohio and went to work as a fireman for the Illinois Central. Casey loved engines and as a fireman was the admiration of the railroad men for his unusual care of the equipment. He polished his engine and kept her bright and shining.
In 1890, Casey was promoted from fireman to engineer. Records show that he was considered one of the most efficient engineers with the Illinois Central. Casey was one of the few “hogsheads” wouldn’t take a drink. He was dependable and dispatchers praised him for his excellent runs. At age 36, he was promoted ahead of veteran engineers to pull the Cannonball, the crack Illinois Central passenger train running between Chicago and New Orleans.
The Cannonball run was set up to have one Cannonball going toward New Orleans and a second Cannonball speeding its way toward Chicago. Fresh crews took over the trains at various points along the way. Casey’s run covered the track from Jackson, Tennessee, to Water Valley, Mississippi.
On April 29, 1900, Casey jumped into the Cannonball’s cab and blew his special whippoorwill whistle. About 10:00 o’clock that evening, Casey pulled into the Memphis station with the Cannonball. He looked over the engine with his fireman C.M. “Slim” Webb, then both men went into the checking office. While they were in the office, a report came in that the engineer on the southbound Cannonball had been taken ill and couldn’t make his run.
Tired as he was, Casey volunteered to “back track” over the run he had just made. Slim Webb said that if Casey was going back, he would go back too. Since there was no other qualified engineer to take the Cannonball, Casey was allowed to take the run. He requested the use of his regular locomotive 638. At 11:00 p.m., Casey and his fireman swung into the cab, and they were off.
The night was foggy, and the locomotive headlight could pierce the gloom for only about 100 yards. As the train roared through the little towns and villages along his route. Casey blew his special whippoorwill signal and sleepy people wondered why he was making the return trip the same night.
The last fifty miles of the trip were uneventful except at one small town. There a freight train with a broken axle held up the Cannonball for half an hour because it blocked the mainline.
When Casey was on the track again, he stoked up the engine to 60 miles an hour. Slim Webb piled more coal in the fire box as the train tore through the night and reached the long grade that marked the town of Vaughn, Mississippi. Just before Vaughn was a siding that had to be entered at a sharp curve. Casey approached this siding, barreling along at 60 miles an hour. In the fog, it was impossible to see more than 300 feet ahead. Casey didn’t see the signal lights that meant a train was on the siding until he was about 200 feet from the beginning of the sidetrack. The freight train didn’t carry signal lights to indicate that there was another train beyond it and the fog made it impossible to see.
Casey didn’t slacken his speed. He knew that the siding was a long one and he’d passed many strung out freight trains on it before. He was confident that his old engine and her string of twelve cars would roar by without any accident.
The Cannonball thundered by the line of boxcars and was within 150 yards of the end of the switch when the headlight pieced the darkness and fog. The light revealed that there were box cars on the main track! A second train was pulling onto the siding and wasn’t yet off the main line.
The engineer tried to get the last few cars off the switch, but there wasn’t enough time. Casey grabbed his brakes and there was a great hissing as he threw the massive wheels into reverse. Above the clatter and boiling of the engine, Casey shouted, “Jump Slim, for your life!”
Slim jumped and landed in a clump of bushes. Then there was a grinding crash, wood against steel, steam roaring from broken pipes. In the smashing impact, the cab of Casey’s beloved engine was crushed in on him, while the other engineer received only a few bruises.
Casey’s body was taken to Canton, Mississippi. Here a long line of people came to say a tearful goodbye to the “Whippoorwill Engineer,” before he went home to his final resting place in Jackson, Tennessee.
One of Casey’s mourners was a black engine wiper, Wallace Saunders. Wallace and “Mr. Jones” had thought a lot of each other. Casey especially had liked the black man for his way of making up and singing songs about the railroaders he knew and the things they did. Wallace was sad because Mr. Jones was gone. He didn’t sing anymore as he crawled over the big engines. Another black man in the roundhouse, wanting to cheer up Wallace, told him he should make up a song about Casey and the way he died.
Wallace composed his song, and the Ballad of Casey Jones sprang to life. Wallace added verse after verse, inspired by the railroad men. The song was already popular when Ed Newton, a professional song writer, heard it during a visit in Canton. When he returned to California, he wrote the song, “Casey Jones.” The tune was almost the same as the one originally sung by Wallace Saunders.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_XUV3HJajQ
The ballad swept the country. For nearly a decade, it was a best seller. Countless verses were added. Train crews from coast-to-coast substituted names of their own railroads and local cities for those in the original verses, whether they rhymed or not. The ballad was sung before the crowned heads of Europe, hummed by mechanics and farmers and schoolgirls and whistled by laborers in the cotton fields. Everyone knew the song as well as his own name, and no party was a success until everyone had joined in one chorus of Casey Jones!
Janie Brady Jones never received any royalties from the sale or singing of Casey Jones. She worked long and hard through her young years to send her three children to school and provide for them. In Jackson, Tennessee, where she always made her home, she was known as a “community mother.”
The Illinois Central Railroad officials held Janie in such high esteem that they gave her free transportation over the entire system and passes on any other railroad she wished to travel. Sometimes, when she handed her pass to a conductor on the Illinois Central, he would say quietly, “Casey used to pull me on a freight train. I always liked him. Yes, I always liked Casey.”
The engineers on the Illinois Central didn’t forget Casey either. As they rumbled past the grave in Jackson where Casey sleeps his long sleep, the Illinois Central engineers coaxed a slow, mournful whistle from the locomotives. It’s a legend among railroad men that the spirit of Casey Jones always heard the call.