By: Dr. Trevor Smith
In 1900 the most famous train wreck in American history occurred in Vaughn, Mississippi. This wreck killed engineer Casey Jones, but because of Jones’ skill and sacrifice, none of the passengers were seriously harmed. The so-called legacy of Casey Jones has become an enduring element of American folklore.
Jones was a talented and ambitious railroad worker. He was employed by the Illinois Central Railroad, and worked his way up the ranks from brakeman to engineer very quickly. Jones’ peers recognized him as an outstanding engineer. His trains were nearly always on time, and he prided himself on his ability safely operate trains at very high speeds. He was even well-known to residents along his routes because he used a distinct whistle that he designed.
On the night of April 29, 1900, Jones was asked to take a train known as the “Cannonball” from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi. Jones was a substitute for the regular engineer who was ill. The departure was delayed by more than ninety minutes. To make up for the lost time, Jones ran the engine much faster than he normally would have.
By the time the train neared Vaughn it was almost on time. Unfortunately, a second train had become stuck while moving to a secondary track to make way for the Cannonball. Jones’ train was traveling seventy-five miles an hour when Jones and his fireman, Simeon Webb, rounded a curve and saw the stuck train. Jones immediately ordered Webb to jump from the cab. Jones, however, did not jump but rather desperately tried to stop the train before it slammed into the caboose of the train on the tracks. He was able to slow the train significantly, and in doing so saved the lives of his passengers.
The official accident report blamed Jones for the accident, claiming that he missed flags and flares warning him of the stuck train. Webb, who survived his jump from the cab, claimed that the train was not warned. It is unlikely that Jones would have overlooked such warnings if they had been placed.
The press gave the wreck extensive coverage, and Jones was hailed as a hero. Shortly after the accident “The Ballad of Casey Jones” emerged as a song sung by employees of the Illinois Central railroad. Wallace Saunders, a friend of Jones, probably wrote the lyrics but the music is to another folk tune. The song was eventually picked up by Vaudeville performers, and it would become one of the most popular songs in the country. Over the years it has been recorded by many artists. The most popular recording is by Mississippi blues singer John Hurt. In 1970 the Grateful Dead released a similar song entitled “Casey Jones,” that became one of their biggest hits.
Jones was survived by his wife, Mary, and three children. Mary never remarried and was said to disapprove of the song about her husband, believing it to be disrespectful. Jones is buried in a cemetery in his home town of Jackson, Tennessee.