In The Tracks Of Casey Jones
To say that Vaughan, Mississippi, is a town that time forgot might be to give the place a little too much credit. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that this is one place that time didn’t think enough of to bother with.
The town never was much to begin with and if not for its special place in American folklore, it would be like any one of a thousand other places that few have heard of and fewer yet will miss. A handful of buildings stand empty, succumbing to gravity and the elements; all that remains of what little commerce the town once had. A few residents are still around, but to find work or goods they have to look elsewhere.
I found myself in Vaughan on a hot June afternoon not to see what is, but to imagine what was.
I was a child attending grade school when I was first exposed to the story of Casey Jones. Every year, the Scholastic Book Fair made its way to my school. One year, I found a book with a picture of a steam engine and an engineer on it. I had to have that book!
The story of John Luther Jones captivated me, then a youngster with a fascination with trains. I grew up of course, eventually working for the railroad myself. His story is only one of many I have read or heard in the ensuing years. It is simply a piece in the puzzle of history; an example of the way things were done at that time when railroading was quite primitive by today’s standards. It is still fascinating to me today.
John Luther Jones was a fast runner, and he didn’t care who knew it. In fact, he would just as soon that everyone knew it. He was a proud man; proud of his work and proud of his skill at handling an engine.
From his days as a child along the tracks of the Mobile and Ohio at his adopted hometown of Cayce, Kentucky, he was enthralled with the railroad. He would spend his days hanging out at the station. When a train was due, he would sit on a fence and watch as the locomotive pulled to a stop alongside the water tank. Eventually he worked up the courage to talk to the regular crews he would see as they topped off the water in the tender.
It looks rather out of place; a granite marker on the hillside overlooking the main highway intersection east of Cayce.
Men who knew Casey were still alive when the marker was erected at his hometown. Today the marker is still in good condition. It is obviously kept clean and respectable. But it also seems as something of an afterthought. How many people drive on past with no idea it is even there, or what it remembers?
The railroad today is but a shadow of its former self in terms of cultural significance. Sure trains might be more vital than ever in terms of moving goods from place to place, but their connection to the American consciousness has largely vanished. Perhaps it left along with the local station agent and the daily passenger train to everywhere. Perhaps it left when the fickle public’s fancy turned to the automobile culture. Perhaps it left when the mournful whistle of a steam engine in the dead of night gave way to the blaring horn of the diesel.
However it happened, that connection isn’t there. Ask about Casey Jones to someone today, and you are as likely to hear an answer involving the Greatful Dead as you are about a train wreck. Perhaps it is just as well. Even the railroad through Cayce is long gone. Look closely and you may find a few rotting railroad ties still in place to mark what was here, but the railroad along which the young Casey spent his days is also just a memory.
As I stood along the abandoned right of way in Cayce, it occurred to me that not only was I standing in the footsteps of a childhood hero, but we had something in common. I too was a kid who grew up hanging around the train station, watching the trains go by and talking to the train crews. I too ended up working for the railroad as an adult… but then I’m in no rush to be an engineer; conductor is just fine with me.
Casey went to work for the Mobile and Ohio Railroad at age 15. He may have been too young to go to work on the trains themselves, but he was able to land a position as a telegraph operator at Columbus, Kentucky.
Columbus was not a whole lot larger than Cayce, but it was more significant. The town hugged the banks of the Mississippi River, and was the northern terminus of the M&O when Casey went to work in 1878. The goal had once been to ferry cars across the river to a planned railroad at Belmont, Missouri, but those plans never came to fruition. Instead, cars were loaded onto riverboats and floated to and from the Illinois Central’s docks at Cairo, Illinois.
In addition to the railroad yard along the river, the banks also hosted a large grain elevator that transferred grain to riverboats for movement along the Mississippi.
The town of Columbus today bears no resemblance at all to the town Casey knew. The town was ravaged in 1927 when the Mississippi surged out of its banks, and the handful of surviving buildings were hauled from the riverbank to a new site along the top of the bluffs.
The river had simply finished what time and economics had started. With the planned connection with the Missouri rail line never coming to pass, the Mobile and Ohio built its own line north from a junction southeast of Columbus. The railroad made use of the Illinois Central’s operation between Cairo and the Kentucky riverbank, and acquired control of a railroad that had been constructed between Cairo and St. Louis. Following Illinois Central’s building of a bridge over the Ohio River in 1889, M&O trains made use of I.C. tracks over the river.
If the grain operation was still there before the flood of ‘27, the flood finished it off. There is still river related industry at Columbus, as an outfit that repairs barges is in operation near the site of the old elevator. As for the M&O yards and the town?
By the turn of the century, Casey Jones was a well known figure along the Illinois Central Railroad in Mississippi. He left the telegraph operator’s office to go to work as a brakeman on the M&O, before entering engine service on the I.C. Since 1893, he had been a fixture along the line out of Water Valley in the engine he had been running since it was brand new; Consolidation type #638.
Casey was considered a top notch engineer by his peers, even if his record may have been a bit spotty by today’s standards. He had been suspended nine times since 1891 for various infractions for periods of five to thirty days. Despite this he had a good overall reputation; after all this was an era where railroad disasters were common and he at worst had had what amounted to a few fender benders. It was nothing abnormal.
Over the years Casey’s seniority increased, until in early 1900 he was able to hold a regular passenger assignment. Willard Hatfield bid out of passenger service and back to Water Valley, opening a run from Memphis, Tennessee, to Canton, Mississippi. Hatfield’s job went south on train #1 and returned north on #4. Casey marked up on the job and was assigned to Hatfield’s former engine, Ten-Wheeler #384.
The Grenada District, the line over which the trains ran, was a tough line to run fast trains on. There were hills and sharp curves to contend with. In fact the preceding November, the engine crew on a passenger train had been killed when their engine rolled over due to excessive speed on a curve. Some engineers that had the seniority to hold a passenger run elected to stay on freight runs rather than take the riskier passenger jobs.
Casey and his regular fireman, Sim Webb, pulled into Memphis with #4 on April 29, 1900. They were informed that Sam Tate, who was the other regular engineer on trains #1 and #4, had marked off sick. Would Casey be willing double back and take #1 south that night instead of waiting for his job the next day?
Of course he would.
Memphis’s Poplar Street Station was razed in 1939, and the site of the station is now a parking lot. The railroad tracks are still there and Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” passes the site in each direction every day, along with the cars of Memphis’s streetcar system. The site is around a mile north of today’s Memphis Amtrak station, which shares the former Illinois Central’s Central Station with a Memphis police department office. A sign marks the spot of the old station, along with a remnant of an old retaining wall. A street now runs where the station’s tracks were.
Casey and Sim reported to work at the roundhouse to get their engine, which tonight would be #382, Sam Tate’s regular engine. Casey was known for paying attention to the details of the engines he ran, and he was probably there early to give the engine a good looking over. He also probably supervised the installation of his own whistle on the engine.
Once the time came, they would have backed the engine down from the roundhouse to the Poplar Street Station to await the arrival of #1. The train was due out of Poplar Street at 11:15pm, but the train was running quite late this night.
Railroading is often as much a case of “hurry up and wait” as it is rolling off the miles on the mainline. Casey and his crew would have had plenty of time to kill while waiting for #1 to arrive. And they would have had plenty to talk about too. Casey was only in his third month working as a regular on the passenger runs, so he was still settling into the routine of a new job. He was also proud of the new whistle he had acquired, and in later years Sim recalled Casey talking about it. They possibly could have also engaged in the idle chat of railroaders throughout the ages; questioning the intellect and ancestry of the people in charge of the railroad.
In between chat, there was still work to be done. The fire needed to be tended, and water needed to be kept up in the boiler. There was no need to keep a full head of steam while waiting, but the engine needed to be ready when the time came. There was always something to check as well; a drop of oil to be added on a crosshead guide or a shot of grease to a rod bearing.
While the train came to a stop and the inbound locomotive was cut off, Sim went to work on his fire. The signal was given, and Casey backed the engine down to tie it onto the train. While passengers detrained and boarded, and while the baggage man and station agents earned their pay, the locomotive was coupled to the train. Once the #382 was tied on and the air brought up, a brake test was done to make sure everything was functioning properly.
By the time the brake test was completed, Sim had #382 hot and ready. Time to relax for a few moments as the station work was completed before the hard work really began. The locomotive’s air pump gave the impression that #382 was panting, as if catching her breath. Then came a lantern signal from conductor J.C. Turner.
Casey’s gloved hands shoved the Johnson Bar into the corner, opened the cylinder cocks, kicked off the air brakes and eased out the throttle. As steam erupted from the cylinders, #382 began easing the six car train away from Poplar Street Station at 12:50am.
The train was 95 minutes late as it began the 188 mile journey to Canton. The timetable allotted around five hours for the trip, which called for an average speed of around 45 miles per hour. To make an on time arrival at Canton, Casey needed to average nearly a mile a minute. With speed restrictions for curvature, junctions and yards, Casey would need every bit of speed he could muster on the straight stretches of railroad.
Poplar Street Station was located approximately at milepost 390. The train worked its way through south Memphis, past the freight station, South Yard and the Walker Street Shops where Casey and Sim reported for duty. At the south end of the yard the train headed southeast at South Junction, milepost 394.3. From there it was another two and a half miles to East Junction, and nearly another mile to the Grenada Wye. The speed limit through the entire area was 30 miles per hour or less; usually less.
Rounding Grenada Wye at milepost 397.5, the train entered the Grenada District, which comprised the mainline all the way to Canton. Passing mile 403, Casey pulled back on the throttle and #382 came to life with a burst of speed and a roar of exhaust from the stack. As the speed increased from thirty to a mile-a-minute pace, Casey moved the Johnson Bar nearer and nearer to the center, allowing the expansion power of the steam to do more of the work. All the while Sim baled in scoop after scoop of coal into the firebox, working hard to keep up steam as the train accelerated upgrade, and pausing only long enough to work the injector to keep water in the boiler.
For the first six miles to milepost 409, a series of sixty mile per hour curves kept Casey from going after it too hard. Once the train passed the first curve south of the milepost, he had a couple of miles to give #382 her head before slowing for another series of curves as the train climbed Hernando Hill. Passing the last curve at milepost 415, Casey could build up a little speed before having to slow for two more curves at milepost 417.
After rounding the curves, it was off to the races. Casey hauled back on the throttle and adjusted the Johnson Bar as the train accelerated, Sim baling coal all the while. For nine miles Casey was able to make time, before slowing for another sixty mile per hour curve at Coldwater.
After Coldwater, it was a racetrack all the way to Sardis. Passing through Senatobia at milepost 430, Casey passed the spot where Dave Dowling had turned his engine over the previous November. Dowling and his fireman, Jack Barnett, had been killed in the wreck. The thought was a reminder to Casey on this night; while he could make time by taking curves a few miles per hour over the posted speed, too much and he might find himself meeting the same fate.
Sardis, Mississippi, was the first stop for #1 south of Memphis. As the train rolled to a stop at the water plug, Sim climbed up on the tender to top off #382’s water. While Sim took care of the water, Casey climbed down from the cab and gave his charge a once over. In the time honored tradition of the era his long spouted oil can would have added a dab of oil to the rod bearings and crosshead guides, not to mention adding a liberal supply to the journal wells on the drivers. The train was only stopped a few minutes before the conductor was waving “Highball!”
Casey must have been pleased as he kicked off the brakes and eased #382 into motion. He was making up every bit of time he had hoped for, and perhaps then some. The six car train was no match for #382, which was only a few years old, and the locomotive was steaming like the finely tuned machine she was.
It was ten miles to another passenger stop at Batesville, and upon leaving it was back to mile after mile of sixty mile per hour curvature. He could fudge a few miles per hour here and a few there, but there were no places to really open up.
Nearing Grenada the train slowed for Memphis Junction, where the line to Water Valley diverged from the line to Canton. Casey pulled to a stop, and Sim ran ahead to line the switch. The switch was required to be left lined for the Water Valley line, so all the New Orleans trains had to stop to line the switch… unless one were to run through the switch as Casey had a few weeks before. Trainmaster Murphy had let him hear about that!
Sim lined the switch and Casey eased the train ahead, Sim climbing aboard as the locomotive passed; another quick stop for the brakeman to line the switch behind the train. South of the junction the mile markers changed; despite it being only a few minutes from the junction to the stop at Grenada, the mileposts jump from 486.8 to 618. At Grenada, Sim climbed up on the tender for more water while Casey oiled around the locomotive.
After a few minutes the conductor waved the highball, and it was back to business. Casey had already made up 55 minutes as he eased #382 into motion. The fifteen miles from Grenada to Eskridge was good railroad, and Casey ran #382 for everything she was worth. Four miles of curves slowed the train to a mile-a-minute pace, and then it was only two miles to another stop at Winona. From Winona to Durant is thirty miles. The track is straight with no curves to speak of; certainly none worth a speed restriction for. It was back to fast running, hitting eighty miles per hour and more.
“Sim,” the fireman recalled Casey saying years later, “the ol’ girl has her high heeled slippers on tonight.”
As the train rolled into Durant, milepost 670, a red signal on the order board told Casey that there were new orders from the train dispatcher. Casey had made up more time than the dispatcher had expected. He had originally planned to have #1 meet its northbound counterpart #2 there at Durant. With Casey running earlier, the meet was moved to the next siding to the south. Casey read his new orders, instructing #1 to take the siding at Goodman.
As soon as passenger and baggage work was done, the conductor signaled the highball and Casey was again coaxing his train into motion. Now the last of the slow curves were behind him, and #1 was nearly back on schedule. Once again Casey gave #382 her head, accelerating to a pace well over a mile-a-minute. All too soon, Casey was easing off on the throttle and applying the brakes as the train approached the north end of Goodman Siding.
Sim jumped down from the cab of #382, ran ahead and lined the switch for the train to enter the siding. Casey eased the train into the siding, Sim climbing aboard the locomotive as it passed, and the brakeman lined the switch back for the main after the rear of the train cleared. As it did, the Goodman operator reported the train passed the station on time.
The siding at Goodman was fairly short, just shy of 750 feet in length; or less than twice the length of #382 and her six car train. The train eased to a stop at the south end of the siding. Coming to a stop, the locomotive’s air pump recharged the train’s brakes system with air. As it did so the locomotive seemed to pant; as if it were catching it’s breath after a long sprint. After a few moments, a headlight appeared in the distance as #2 approached down the straight track ahead.
“Good,” Casey probably thought. The train was just about on time, so he was looking at a good run the rest of the way to Canton. An on time trip seemed to be in the bag. As #2 approached a brakeman walked up to the switch, ready to line the train onto the mainline. Sim went back to work on his fire, getting the locomotive ready for its last sprint to Canton. Roaring out of the darkness, #2 passed at full speed with nothing but clear track ahead of it before its stop at Durant.
The brakeman lined the switch for the mainline, and Casey eased #1 out of the siding.
The siding at Goodman is still there, though the station where the operator worked is long gone.
I stood at the crossing of a gravel road just south of town, looking through the telephoto lens of my camera. Even in the heat of a late June day, I could almost picture the headlight of #382 as #1 pulled out of that very siding on a quiet April morning over a century before. I could imagine the soft chuffing as the locomotive eased the train onto the mainline, changing to a loud staccato exhaust as the brakeman climbed back on board.
I could almost picture the scene in my mind’s eye; Casey leaning out of the cab and staring ahead into the darkness, unaware of what I knew was his fate.
The pieces of the puzzle that would lead to disaster were already in place by the time #1 left Goodman. Thirteen miles to the south at Vaughan, Mississippi, five trains were converging. There were two sidings at Vaughan; a shorter house track on the west side of the mainline ran behind the depot and a longer passing siding lay parallel to the mainline on the east side.
The first train to arrive was southbound freight #83, which broke in two while pulling into the passing siding. While crewmen were putting #83 back together, southbound passenger train #25 pulled up behind it. Once #83 was able to pull ahead into the passing siding, #25 made its stop and headed south.
The delay to #25 posed another problem as #25 delayed northbound freight #72. Two more passenger trains were due behind #72, and #72 couldn’t pass Vaughan without causing some serious delays to both of them. But with #83 already occupying the passing siding, #72 was too long to get completely out of the way.
With #2 approaching to the south, #83 backed up far enough to let #72 get clear of the mainline. Once #2 arrived, #72 backed up to let #83 clear the north end of the siding. This “saw by” move completed, #2 headed off into the night and its meet with #1 at Goodman. This also left the north switch clear for another “saw by” with #1.
In the meantime flagman Newberry of #83 placed a warning torpedo on the rail three-thousand feet from the north end of the passing siding. The torpedo was essentially a small explosive charge that would go off with a loud bang when run over by a wheel. The sound would be loud enough to be heard on a locomotive, and would warn the crew to stop their train.
Then came the final piece of the puzzle: northbound passenger train #26. Once again the two freight trains moved to clear the south end to let #26 pull into the house track. Once #26 was in the clear, the freight trains began moving to clear the north end of the passing siding for #1.
Suddenly there was a rush of air as the brakes on #72 went into emergency. The whole operation ground to a halt. Crewmen scrambled to inspect the train, only to find an air hose had burst on the fourth car behind the locomotive. #72 would be disabled until it was replaced. Fireman Kennedy of #72 hurried to grab a spare hose and then rushed to change the hoses out. As he worked, he heard a sound like a rifle shot to the north.
Casey had managed to get to Goodman on time, but had left five minutes late after meeting #2. That was no problem though. He had a 27 mile racetrack ahead of him to get his train into Canton on time.
Accelerating away from Goodman, Casey had #382 working just as the designers had intended when she was put together at Rogers three years before. Sixty miles per hour. Then seventy.
#1 roared past the empty passing siding at Pickens at seventy-five miles per hour. Only six miles to go until Vaughan. In doubling back like this, Casey had been on duty well over twelve hours. That bed was going to feel good when he got to Canton, and his arrival would be all the better having made up all that lost time.
Three miles to Vaughan.
Casey waved Sim over to his side of the cab. What better way to announce #1’s arrival in Canton than to wake up the town with his distinctive calliope whistle? That will get their attention! Sim would later remember that Casey was sure proud of that whistle!
Two miles to Vaughan.
Sim stepped down from Casey’s side of the cab and reached for his shovel to start baling coal into the firebox. The train was approaching a long, sweeping left hand curve as it neared Vaughan. Moving seventy-five miles per hour, the train was just two minutes late.
There was a rush of air as Casey made an application of the train brakes. Sim looked out the engineer’s side as they passed flagman Newberry. He dropped his shovel and rushed to the gangway on his side of the cab. Around the curve, and still out of Casey’s view, were the two marker lights on the caboose of #83. The train was still blocking the mainline.
“Look out Casey! We’re gonna hit somethin’!”
Another loud rush of air followed as Casey’s hand slammed the brake lever all the way over and put the brakes in emergency. Then he closed the throttle, wrestled the Johnson bar into full reverse, opened the sanders and yanked open the throttle to put the locomotive in reverse.
“You jump too, Casey!”
“No, I’ll stay at my post!”
Sim climbed down the steps and crouched as low as he could. The train was still moving around fifty miles per hour as he let go. He hit the cinder ballast hard and rolled to a stop, but he survived.
Three hundred feet later, #382 hit the caboose of #83 with Casey still in his seat on the right side of the cab. The locomotive plowed through the wooden caboose, a boxcar loaded with shelled corn and a boxcar loaded with baled hay before nosing off the right of way to the right side. The front of the locomotive hit the embankment and the locomotive spun around, coming to rest facing the direction from which it had come. The tender followed the engine off the right of way and overturned, as did the mail car behind it. Baggageman Miller in the express car broke two ribs when he was thrown against the side of the car as it climbed the six foot embankment, but was not otherwise seriously hurt. The rest of the crew and some of the passengers were shaken by the sudden stop, but none were seriously injured. Other passengers toward the rear were unaware that a collision had even taken place.
There is a moment of silence following an accident; the moment between the event itself and the reaction to it. #382, which moments before was running in full reverse in a vain attempt to stop, now sat disabled with steam hissing from its boiler; the sound seemingly quiet compared to the cacophony of crashing steel and splintering wood an instant before. Live coals from the firebox, scattered in the collision, now began to ignite the hay scattered from a wrecked boxcar and slowly began to spread toward the wreckage.
In a few moments, after the shock of the initial crash had passed, voices began shouting in the darkness. Crewmen of #83, who had run for their lives just before the collision, frantically returned and began putting out the fire. They were quickly joined by other railroaders from the other trains. Luckily, they were able to extinguish the blaze before it could spread and cause further damage. With the immediate danger passed, men scrambled to the wrecked locomotive looking for Casey.
Aboard #1, a newspaper reporter named Adam Hauser was a passenger in the sleeping car. When the wreck happened he was jarred a little in his bunk, but was wide awake after a few moments. With the train stopped, he opened the window just in time to see someone running by carrying a red lantern. Following the instinct of any good reporter he quickly dressed and climbed down from the train, heading to the front to see what had happened. Casey’s body had been found by the time he got there.
They found him laying below the cab, the back of his skull crushed in a mass of tangled wreckage. His body was also scalded by escaping steam, though with the head injuries everyone agreed he was dead first.
A group of railroaders carried Casey to the Vaughan depot, where he was laid on a baggage wagon. Even in 1900 Vaughan was a minor stop along the line, and the depot was closed for the night. Several of the men kicked the door in, and one of the engineers who knew Morse Code telegraphed the dispatcher to report the accident.
I stood on the tracks at Vaughan, estimating myself to be mere feet from the point where Casey’s locomotive hit the caboose of #83. Just behind me a pair of circular concrete bases, one on either side of the track, marked where the signals once stood at the north end of the siding.
Those two now unused pieces of concrete are now the only monument to Casey in Vaughan. They say nothing about what happened there, and they tell no tales to the person who is not well versed in Casey’s story. Even so, they are the “X” that marks the spot.
Looking to the north is the curve that Casey rounded seconds before being hurled into the hereafter. Standing there, I could imagine Sim Webb looking out the gangway and shouting to Casey about the danger ahead. I could imagine the sinking feeling in the gut of flagman Newberry as he realized that the train he was charged with warning was never going to stop in time. And I could imagine sitting in the engineer’s seat, watching helplessly the last few seconds as the red lights on the caboose grow nearer until…
The erosion of time and the growth of brush have obliterated the scars left by the wreck. No visible marks remain, including the imprint of the boiler on the embankment reported in the years afterward. The embankment is still there, but all is left to the imagination.
The Vaughan depot was torn down decades ago. The house track that ran behind the building is still there, though it only connects to the mainline at one end. The other end has been ripped out. It was here that passengers were transferred from #1 to the commandeered equipment of #26 for the last miles to Canton.
Another depot was brought to Vaughan to serve as a museum, which was opened in 1980. The depot was further back from the track and to the south of the original. A small Southern Pacific steam engine was also brought to the site, and it stood outside the museum for over two decades. In 2004, the state of Mississippi closed the museum. Both the building and the locomotive are now long gone.
The station in Canton still stands. The main part of the building dates from 1890, and Casey worked this station numerous times. On April 30, 1900, he arrived here for the last time. Only hours before he had talked to his fireman about how he planned to rouse the town with his locomotive’s whistle when #1 pulled into town. Rather than the grand entrance he had planned, he arrived in the baggage car taken from #26, the sole fatality of a rear end collision of the sort all too common on the railroads of his era.
The wreck was mentioned in the newspapers of the time but was given only brief mention; after all, train wrecks happened all the time. This was just another one to give to which a paragraph or two. It was not considered big news. If not for a song that started with a roundhouse employee, it would have faded into the dusty recesses of history like hundreds of others.
Come all you rounders if you want to hear,
A story told of a brave engineer.
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name,
On a six-eight wheeler boys he won his fame.
But the story lived on through the years, giving at least one writer the chance to walk in the footsteps of a childhood hero. Such opportunities are rare in life, and as such are special times to be treasured when they do come about.
Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson