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The Smoke Stack

The Legend of Casey Jones: A Fearless Engineer

Posted on September 14, 2017

Jonathan Luther “John” “Casey” Jones was an aspiring railroad engineer who lived during the latter half of the 19th century. He realized his goal largely due to a yellow fever epidemic that struck many train crews in 1887. The unfortunate deaths provided unexpected opportunities for faster promotion through the ranks of railroad employees.

After performing multiple roles such as fireman with various railroad companies, Jones secured the position of engineer in 1891 for the Illinois Central Railroad. He became recognized by his peers as one of the best engineers in the business as his goal was to reach destinations as fast as possible and to never “fall down.”

Jones met his demise at the turn of the century on April 29.

After finishing a regular passenger-service run from Canton, Mississippi to Memphis, Tennessee, at the controls of “Old No. 384” with his new fireman, Simeon T. Webb (Sim), Jones was looking forward to the usual overnight stay before returning south the next day. As it happened, the engineer assigned to the next southbound run was ill, and Casey was asked to take his place.

It was after midnight when Casey and Webb climbed into an unfamiliar engine during a steady rain and patchy fog. Although it was raining, steam trains of that era were known to operate best in damp conditions. As they pulled out of the station with a light six or eight car train (accounts vary) and up to an hour and a half behind schedule, Jones boasted that he could make up the time to pull into Canton on schedule at 4:05 am. True to his word, Casey was on course to rapidly make up the time. According to Webb, Jones was in a euphoric mood and was quoted to say “The old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight.”

Close to the Mississippi destination, two freight trains had pulled onto the siding to allow for Jones’ passenger train to pass, but one of the freight trains was too long, leaving four cars remaining on the main track. Standard procedure for this type of situation was to have a flagman put out a torpedo, or explosive warning, on the track, and then to physically flag the oncoming train for it to stop. In this case, neither Jones or Webb ever heard the warning or saw the flagman. When Jones’ engine emerged around a blind curve at 75 miles per hour, Webb finally spotted the obstruction and yelled to Jones. Realizing that there was not enough time to come to a complete stop, Jones ordered Webb to jump as he laid on the whistle, throwing the drivers into reverse and putting on the air brakes. This allowed the train to reduce speed to about 35 miles per hour but not before slamming into the freight ahead. The whistle blast at least gave the crew time to jump free, and the reduced speed limited most damage to the engine and cab. No passengers were injured, but Casey Jones was killed due to various injuries caused by the collision.

Jones was hailed as a hero for saving his passengers and crew, but ultimately the Illinois Central Railroad officially blamed him for the wreck stating excessive speed and failing to heed the warning of the flagman.

Sim Webb Died 57 years later as an old man.

Casey Jones was immortalized in a popular ballad sung by his friend Wallace Saunders who was an African-American engine wiper for the Illinois Central Railroad.

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