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1900 One Hundred Years Ago

February 2024
2min read

Casey’s Last Run

At ten o’clock on the evening of April 29, the engineer John Luther Jones pulled his Illinois Central train into Memphis after a 190-mile run from Canton, Mississippi. It was a passenger express from New Orleans that was known, like many fast trains, as the Cannonball. The thirty-six-year-old Jones—nicknamed Casey for his hometown of Cayce, Kentucky—expected to stay over in Memphis along with his fireman, Sim Webb, before making the return trip the following night (though in Webb’s version of the tale, recorded several decades after the fact, he and Jones arrived in Memphis on the morning of April 29 and spent the day resting). When they learned that the scheduled engineer for the southbound Cannonball was ill, however, Jones and Webb agreed to take over the run.

The two weary trainmen left Memphis with the six-car Cannonball at 12:50 A.M. , an hour and a half late. Jones prided himself on meeting scheduled times, a trait that had led to nine suspensions for unsafe practices in his ten years on the job. Sure enough, by the time his train approached Vaughan, Mississippi, fourteen miles north of Canton, he had made up all but two minutes of the delay.

Things were backed up at Vaughan. Two freight trains, number 72 northbound and number 83 southbound, were squeezed nose to nose on a siding to let a series of passenger trains through. The siding ran parallel to the main track, joining it with switches at each end. Unfortunately, the siding was not quite long enough to hold both 72 and 83; four cars had to be left sticking out at one end or the other.

In a maneuver called sawing, 72 and 83 were supposed to clear the north switch, leaving the extra cars protruding at the south end; wait for the Cannonball to move through the switch and stop; and then creep a few hundred feet north, clearing the south switch for the Cannonball to continue its run. However, before the north switch could be cleared, an air hose broke on 72, rendering it immobile. As Jones barreled down on the Vaughan station at more than a mile a minute, he did not know that four cars from train 83 lay dead ahead of him.

The broken air hose should have made no difference. Having been warned in advance of the sawing maneuver, Jones was supposed to reduce his speed to twenty-five or thirty miles per hour anyway, but he did not. At thirty-two hundred feet before the switch, a flagman frantically waved his lantern, but Jones took no notice. Five hundred feet later his train set off a “torpedo,” a small container of gunpowder strapped to the rails as a signal. On hearing the explosion, Jones finally realized he was in trouble and tried desperately to slow the train. He knew there was far too little space to stop it completely.

As Webb, at Jones’s command, jumped off to save himself, Jones stayed in the cab to meet certain death, squeezing the throttle in one hand and the brakes in the other. He managed to slow the Cannonball from seventy miles per hour to less than fifty before it slammed into the train ahead. The caboose and a freight car from 83 were demolished, and two freight cars were damaged, as was the Cannonball’s locomotive. Jones’s mangled body was found by its back driving wheel, but the passengers escaped with nothing worse than a few bruises.

One of the Cannonball’s passengers predicted in the next day’s paper that the crash would “be talked about in roundhouses, lunchrooms, and cabooses for the next six months.” Instead, memory of the lurid but not unusual incident has endured for a century, thanks to a snappy song that became one of the country’s most popular and enduring anthems (and most protean; one scholar counted forty-five versions). “Casey Jones” seems to have originated with an Illinois Central laborer named Wallace Saunders (or Wallis Sanders), who adapted an old railroad song called “Jimmie Jones” to fit the facts of the case. In 1903 T. Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton published the most familiar version, which for some reason transfers the action to a Western line and gratuitously portrays Jones’s wife as an adulteress.

Yet as the railroad historian John H. White, Jr., points out, despite his violent death, Jones was no hero. Not only did he cause the accident with his flagrant disregard of safety procedures, but he saved no lives by staying in his cab. Once the throttle was closed and the air brake put in emergency, Jones could do no more except wait for the inevitable collision. He might just as well have jumped along with Webb—except that would have left him as merely a careless engineer who destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment, instead of a folk legend.

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