“A Brave Engineer”

Casey Jones died at 3:52 on April 30, 1900, at the throttle of his engine, Number on the renowned Cannonball Express of the Illinois Central running from Chicago to New Orleans. Seeing the red lights of a caboose loom up in the darkness ahead of him at Vaughan, Mississippi, Casey barely had time to warn his Negro fireman, Sim Webb, to jump from the cab, while he grabbed for the brakes When the wreckage was cleared Casey was found dead with one hand on the air-brake lever and the other on the throttle (or the broken end of the whistle cord). No heroic-age champion could have died more fittingly, in the heat of action, spurning the chance to save his own life so that he could protect his crew and passengers. And none else were hurt. So Casey preserved his record of never having caused a fatality during his career as engineer. There were the further facts that Casey had taken on a run immediately after finishing his regular run to substitute for a sick fellow engineer on the Memphis-to-Canton leg, and that he had made up all but two of the ninety-five minutes the new train was running behind “the advertised.” Given the glamor and swagger of the railroad engineer running his pet engine on a crack express at the turn of the century, before railroad practices and procedures had become routine, the ingredients for ballad success are all present.

In terms of folklore, Casey Jones exemplifies the unwritten code of the railroad engineer, which called for devotion to duty in the face of hazards and obstacles and personal risk; protection of the train and the lives aboard, as a ship captain looked after his ship and its people; adherence to the advertised schedule as a point of honor; pride in his engine and skill in its handling, as a cowboy knew and cherished his horse; faith in railroading, and consequently, in the industrial future of the nation. All these attributes John Luther Jones possessed and displayed to the full. Born March 14, 1863, somewhere in the back country of southwest Missouri, at thirteen he moved with his family to western Kentucky, where his father taught school in the hamlet of Cayce, pronounced like his own nickname, Casey, which derived from the village. Three years later he journeyed to Columbus, Kentucky, a terminus on the Mobile and Ohio line, and there worked his way into railroading, as telegraph operator, brakeman, and fireman. Finally in 1890, when he had entered the employ of the Illinois Central, he graduated to the right-hand side of the cab as engineer. All Casey’s three brothers too became strapping six-foot engineers. Himself six foot four, sturdy of build, with a long head, firm jaw, clean handsome features, and shiny black hair, Casey in his photographs exudes a youthful strength and determination.

A biographical legend took shape following Casey’s death at the throttle that filled in the outlines of heroic saga. There was his love affair with his engine, Number 638, which he first beheld in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, in the exhibit of the Illinois Central Railroad in the Transportation Building. (Casey had to part from 638 when he assumed the Cannonball run.) Number 638 belonged to the Rogers consolidation, 2-8-0 class, the figures standing for two pilot wheels, eight drivers, and no trailers. A gleaming black monster designed for heavy freight, it captured Casey’s heart at first sight, and he wangled permission to drive it from the fair with fight of way, except for first-class trains, across five divisions to Water Valley, Mississippi, the terminal from which he was operating. In those days of railroading, engines and their equipment possessed their own individuality; for instance in the engine whistle, personalized by each hogger. Casey’s whistle was made of six thin tubes bound together, the shortest half the length of the longest. When, in the art known as “quilling,” he sound­ed six chimes on his whistle, its piercing calliopelike tones ringing across the countryside informed all hearers that Casey Jones and Number 638 were hurtling down the tracks. With his own hog, his loyal fireman, his pet whistle, Casey did resemble the knight of old on his charger carrying his prized weapon, attended by his man. Wives and sweethearts bridled at the affection, endearments, and feminine names engineers bestowed on their hogs. On at least one occasion Casey talked to 638 as if it were animate: “Good old gal! You know you can make it. Don’t fail me now!” slapping the cab with his palm as if he were caressing a spirited filly. According to his biographer, Fred J. Lee, Casey was exhorting 638 to breast Bolivar Hill, the steepest grade between Jackson and Water Valley, without doubling engines, that is, hooking on a second locomotive to help drag an extra-heavy load of freight up the incline. But to fulfill this boast to the yard crew, Casey resorted to a daredevil stratagem: he screwed down the pop valve, so that his hog was actually carrying 195 pounds of steam when the gauge registered 175, the maximum permitted on that class of engine by strict company regulation.

This daredevil trait becomes a factor to consider in the still-open question as to Casey’s responsibility for the fatal wreck. An official report laid the blame on Jones for failing to observe the flagman placed a thousand feet ahead of the caboose, or to hear the torpedo exploded on the track thirty telegraph poles before the stationary freight cars, two devices required by safety regulations of the company. The Illinois Central attributed Casey’s negligence to the fatigue of the double run and the engineer’s craze for speed—he must have gone a hundred miles an hour on some stretches and was probably hitting seventy-five when he saw the caboose and slowed to thirty-five before the impact. But Sim Webb the fireman saw no flag and was unsure of hearing torpedoes. In terms of legend-making, the posthumous debate enhanced Casey’s status as the self-sacrificing hero maligned by the blackguarding corporation. Biographer Lee supplied other folklore touches in the dreams and premonitions of Casey’s death by his sister Emma, the ballad writer Wallis Saunders, and fellow engineer Colie Chandler. After Casey’s death, Negro firemen on the Mississippi division of the Illinois Central kept hearing his whistle …

adapted from
Richard M. Dorson,
America in Legend. Folklore from the Colonial Period to the Present.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1973.

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