In an era when spectacular train wrecks were common, the fate of Illinois Central engineer Jonathan Luther Jones should not have aroused popular interest. Yet “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer” has become one of Tennessee’s great folk heroes and a prominent character in American railroad lore. The legend of Casey Jones owes its creation to a black engine wiper at the Illinois Central Roundhouse in Canton, Mississippi. Wallace Saunders composed the verses about his engineer friend that embellished the events of April 30, 1900, and made Casey Jones a legend.
Jones was born on March 14, 1863. His schoolteacher father moved the family to Cayce, Kentucky, when Jones was in his teens. There he watched the locomotives at the Mobile and Ohio Railroad yards and decided to make railroading his career. In 1878, at the age of fifteen, Jones left his family to work on the Mobile and Ohio. The road transferred him to Jackson, Tennessee, where he met and married Janie Brady in 1886. Jones established a reputation for staying on schedule while running the freight route between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi. He always announced his approach with a blast of the calliope whistle, which sounded like a whippoorwill in the night.
In January 1900 Jones was transferred to a passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi, which made up one leg of a four-train run linking Chicago and New Orleans. The “Cannonball Express” had a reputation for speed, and so did Jones. He completed his day’s work on the morning of April 29 and pulled train Number 1 into Memphis’s Poplar Street Station. The regular engineer for the Canton run was ill, and Jones agreed to double up. He asked that his favorite engine, Number 382, be readied for the return trip. The train was ninety-five minutes behind schedule when it left the station, but Jones and fireman Sim Webb were determined to make up the time over the 188-mile run. Nearing Vaughn, Mississippi, Jones was only two minutes behind schedule and within 15 miles of his destination. Up ahead, however, a freight train with a mechanical failure was unable to move off the main line onto a siding. When Jones saw the lights of the caboose, he yelled for Webb to jump. Jones stayed on the train to apply the brakes, thereby saving the lives of his passengers. The fireman escaped with minor injuries. No one but Jones died in the wreck when the engine slammed into the freight train’s caboose. The Illinois Central claimed to have issued warnings regarding the stalled trains, but Webb contended they saw no signals.
Wallace Saunders’s version of the story spread through the vaudeville circuit, and in 1909 Lawrence Seibert and Eddie Newton altered the lyrics and copyrighted a version of “Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer.” Their version popularized the song and became the basis for over two hundred later versions by everyone from the Boy Scouts to the Grateful Dead. Jones has been immortalized by a postage stamp, books, and the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum in Jackson. Although the songs often misrepresent the facts, they made the courage and heroism of the railroad man an American legend.
Norm Cohen, “Casey Jones: At the Crossroads of Two Ballad Traditions,” Western Folklore 32 (1973): 77-103; T. Clark Shaw, “The Legend of Casey Jones,” West Tennessee Historical Society Papers 36 (1992): 65-71