Casey Jones, the legend, the man, the facts


Casey Jones & Sim Webb start their run in a Trainz simulation.

        On April 30, 1900 at 3:52 a.m. in the town of Vaughan, Mississippi, a locomotive engineer by the name of Casey Jones lost his life and stepped into history. Although the Illinois Central Railroad considered the collision a minor accident, and Casey Jones was the only fatality of the crash, something happened following the crash that changed everything.

Casey was deeply liked by an engine wiper by the name of Wallace Saunders. When Wallace learned of Casey’s death, he composed a ballad in memory of Casey. This ballad propelled Casey Jones from obscurity to a place alongside great American legendary characters such as Paul Bunyon and John Henry . The only difference was that Casey Jones was a real person.

The Ballad Of Casey Jones
Wallace Saunders
As Sung By Johnny Cash
Come all you rounders, if you want to hear
The story bout a brave engineer;
Casey Jones was the roller’s name;
On a 6-8 wheeler course he rode to fame.

The Johnny Cash version of the ballad is one of my favorites. I have written out only the first stanza above, but the entire Johnny Cash version of the Casey Jones ballad is available from Music Match (www.musicmatch.com/home). You can download the entire ballad for 99 cents.

The original ballad spread across the country, and millions of copies of it were distributed. As it grew in fame, Casey Jones also grew in fame. Then others modified the ballad, sometimes adding extra stanzas that were totally untrue and upsetting to Casey Jones’s wife, Janie. Poor Wallace Saunders never made a dime from the ballad because he never copyrighted it.

I researched this article by visiting a number of online web sites, the most detailed site being the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum (http://watervalley.net/users/caseyjones). This web site has extensive information about Casey Jones and the other people involved in the crash of 1900, including copies of key documents and pictures. Bruce Gurner has done a great job as the historian for this site. Another very good web site is the Casey Jones Railroad Museum, State park Vaugha, Mississippi (http://www.trainweb.org/caseyjones). I also got information from the book A Treasury of Railroad Folklore, edited by B.A. Botkin and Alvin F. Harlow. This book was published in 1953 and is currently out of print. The book is chock full of great railroad stories and should be in the library of anyone who loves trains. I was able to purchase my copy from Bartleby’s Books in Washington, DC (http://bartlebysbooks.com). My copy was delivered to me carefully wrapped and in excellent condition. I highly recommend Bartleby’s Books as a source of good reading material.

While researching the information, one thing became abundantly clear. It seems that the accounts differed from each other in a number of areas. I tried very hard to go over the information available and determine the facts as best I could. I hope Casey will approve of my conclusions.

Casey Jones, the man

Casey was not his given name; he was born on March 14, 1864, somewhere in Missouri, and given the name of Jonathan Luther Jones. His family eventually moved to Cayce Kentucky, where he spent his teenage years, and the name of Cayce became his nickname. It is my understanding that his wife Janie changed the spelling of his nickname from Cayce to Casey after his death. Since we all know of him as Casey Jones, I’ll use that name for the rest of this article. I think Casey was always in love with railroading, starting his career at an early age.

In 1878, when Casey was only 14 or 15 years old, he took his first job working in the Mobile & Ohio Railway yard. He may have started as a telegrapher. He moved up through the ranks, finally becoming a fireman for the M&O. He then married Janie Brady in 1887 when he was 23 years old. During their marriage they had three children: Charles, Helen and John Lloyd. In 1888, one year after they were married, Casey Jones left the M&O and joined the ranks of the Illinois Central. He started out as a fireman and then was promoted to the position he had always dreamed about, locomotive engineer, in February of 1890.

In those days aviation had not been born yet and the fastest inventions of mankind were the steam engines of that day. Locomotive engineers were a special breed, and I would consider them to be the equivalent of today’s fighter pilots. They could go faster then anyone else, but the work was dangerous and it took a highly skilled man with nerves of steel to control a giant hunk of steel roaring down the rails at 100 mph. This was no place for a shrinking violet!

It is obvious from reading Casey Jones’s history with the Illinois Central that he was about as far from a shrinking violet as you could get. Casey was 6’4” tall and made an impressive appearance. He also was a devoted family man and did not have a reputation as a drinker or carouser. Casey was well liked by his fellow workers, but he was also an aggressive driver and made his share of mistakes along the way. According to the Illinois Central records Casey was suspended on nine different occasions:

February 14, 1891 -- 10-day suspension for being in a collision
January 17, 1893 -- 5-day suspension for running a switch
1893(no date) -- 5-day suspension for running a switch
December 6, 1893 -- 10-day suspension for hitting a flatcar
January 4, 1896 -- 15-day suspension for being in a collision
June 16, 1896 -- 30-day suspension for gross carelessness and violating rules
September 3, 1896 -- 30-day suspension for being in a collision
September 22, 1897 -- 10-day suspension for not recognizing a flagman
May 22 1899 -- 30-day suspension for leaving a switch open

Good grief! With a record like that, how is it that the railroad didn’t fire Casey Jones? I think Casey was probably able to keep working because he was the kind of guy who could get the train through and keep it on time against all kinds of odds. In spite of his problems, I feel that he was the engineer they called on to do the real tough assignments, and he never turned the railroad down. Then came the rainy and foggy night of April 29, 1900 when Casey Jones accepted the ride that “Took him to the Promised Land.”

Casey’s Ride to the Promised Land

In April of 1900 Casey Jones was the engineer in charge of the Illinois Central’s fastest passenger train. This was a high honor for Casey and it was the dream job that all engineers wanted to have. Casey was given the assignment in January of 1900 after having been with the Illinois Central for 12 years. The train had two numbers, number 1 and number 2 depending on the direction it was traveling. The same train, scheduled later in the day, had the numbers of 3 and 4. All Illinois Central trains were given odd numbers if they were southbound and even numbers if they were northbound. The southbound train was called the New Orleans Fast Mail and the northbound train was called the Chicago Fast Mail. The popular name of the Cannonball has also been mentioned in various accounts, but this was not an official name.

On April 29, 1900 Casey Jones and his fireman Simon (Sim) Webb arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, on time at the head of the northbound number 2. Their locomotive was number 384 and this was the locomotive that was Casey Jones’s normal assignment. That should have been the end of the day for them, but fate intervened. Sam Tate, the engineer of number 1, the New Orleans Fast Mail, had become ill and the train needed an engineer. Casey Jones was asked if he would do an extra assignment that night and run the number 1 train to Canton, Mississippi. Casey accepted the assignment and he and Sim Webb headed south in the cab of number 382, a high stepping 4-6-0 locomotive known as a Ten-wheeler. It had been built by the Rogers Locomotive Works in 1898. The New Orleans Fast Mail consisted of an express baggage car, a mail car, two coaches and two sleepers. It was considered a light load for the Rogers 4-6-0. When they left Memphis at 12:50 a.m. the weather was nasty with mist and drizzling rain. Visibility was poor that night and the number 1 train was already late by one hour and 35 minutes, having been originally scheduled to leave Memphis at 11:15 p.m. It was for Casey Jones to make up the time and bring the train back onto schedule.


Into the night.

In 1900 the Illinois Central did not have block signaling, and the engineers on the single-track line had to rely on handwritten orders. Casey Jones’s orders instructed him to reach Grenada 35 minutes behind the original schedule; Durant 20 minutes behind schedule; and finally reach Canton on time. These train orders could be changed along the route by the dispatcher. The next station ahead of the train could be telegraphed with the new instructions and when the engineer reached the station, if he were not scheduled to stop he would be flagged down so that he could be handed the new orders.

I think Casey Jones loved this type of situation, and felt that here was a chance to run his train at the limit and show the railroad that he was the best there was. Casey had the bit in his teeth and he was going to run with it. When they left Memphis behind and were heading along the main line, Sim Webb shoveled in the coal and Casey opened her up. Through the dark and damp night with fog and drizzle cutting down visibility Casey pushed number 382 to her maximum. He might even have gotten her up to the 100 mph range on some sections of the track. In any case, Casey moved. He reached Granada exactly as ordered, and by the time he got to Durant he had made up almost all the time. At Durant he received new train orders. He was to meet the northbound number 2 train, the Chicago Fast Mail. His orders instructed him to take to the siding at Goodman and wait for the number 2 train to pass, and then continue to Vaughan.

Casey did as he was instructed and he arrived at Goodman on time to meet the number 2 train. Casey’s orders also instructed him that he was to meet northbound number 26 at Vaughan, but number 26 was a local passenger train in two sections. Number 26 would be in the siding and he would have priority.


The mess at Vaughan (Day view for clarity).

As Casey and Sim thundered south in number 382, the situation at Vaughan was rapidly coming apart. Because of the poor weather, trains were not operating on schedule and a virtual logjam took place at Vaughan. At the Vaughan station there were two tracks off the main line. There was a passing track east of the main line 3,148 feet in length and there was a shorter length business track west of the main line that ran behind the station. The passing track should have been long enough to handle just about any sized train that came through, but on this nasty night, trains that should have reached Vaughan at different times got there at the same time and ended up facing head-to-head on the passing track! Southbound freight number 83 had a pair of locomotives operating in tandem, 44 freight cars and a caboose. Northbound freight number 72 had a single locomotive, 36 freight cars and a caboose. When they stopped on the passing track facing each other their combined lengths were more than the length of the passing track.

The rear cars of each train could not clear the main line. When this situation happens the railroad uses a special maneuver called a saw-by. The blocking trains will move forward and backward in a sawing motion to clear first one end of the passing track, let a passing train go past the first switch, then saw back over the first switch clearing the way for the passing train to go over the second switch. This operation would need close cooperation between the train engineers and crews. The first train to come to Vaughan was southbound local passenger train number 25. Flagman J.M. Newberry from train 83 said that he had flagged down number 25 and advised the engineer of the saw-by operation. Trains 83 and 72 sawed southward, opening up the north switch. Train 25 passed the north switch, then trains 83 and 72 sawed northward opening up the south switch, and train 25 continued southward clearing Vaughan. Although the reports haven’t mentioned this, train 72 must have also placed a flagman south of the south switch to flag down the northbound trains and instruct the engineers of the saw-by situation. If you think THIS is confusing, try it on a foggy and rainy night; and this was only the beginning!

The two trains stayed in the position called north-saw, which kept the south switch open because another train was coming in from the south. The next train that came through Vaughan was the northbound number 2 train, the Chicago Fast Mail. This train was scheduled to meet Casey Jones’s New Orleans Fast Mail in Goodman. After the number 2 train cleared the south switch, the saw-by maneuver was made again, clearing the north switch so the number 2 train could continue northward. The number 2 train continued northward to meet with Casey Jones’s train at Goodman. After the number 2 train had cleared Goodman, Casey Jones left Goodman heading south for Vaughan. Casey left Goodman five minutes late because the number 2 train had arrived late. He again tried to make up the time so that he would arrive at Canton on time. By the time he reached Vaughan he was only two minutes behind schedule. Canton was only 11 miles past Vaughan and his night run was almost over, but he rode into a disastrous mess.

As Casey Jones and Sim Webb came closer and closer to Vaughan, yet another northbound train came to Vaughan. This was the northbound number 26 local train, which was scheduled to take to the passing track, now occupied by 83 and 72, so Casey Jones’s train could pass by. This train was in two sections. Each section had a locomotive and a few passenger cars. Numbers 83 and 72 were sawed northward once more, which cleared the switch to the business track. Both sections of train 26 were moved onto the business track to clear the main line, and trains 83 and 72 sawed backward to clear the north switch for Casey Jones. At this point disaster struck. Before the trains could move forward enough to clear the north switch for Casey Jones’s train, an air hose on the 72 train broke, preventing the train from being moved southward any further. Number 83 was stuck with about four freight cars and the caboose on the main line, fouling the main line at the north switch.


The main line is fouled by train 83.

Flagman Newberry of the number 83 train said that he went northwards and placed warning torpedoes on the track at a point 3,000 feet from the rear of number 83. He then said he went another 500-800 feet further north with lanterns to signal Casey Jones’s train. He said that Casey Jones’s train came past his position doing 75 mph without slowing down, although he was signaling Casey, and the number 1 train did not start to slow down until after it had gone over the torpedoes. J.M Newberry said he saw the fireman jump off number 382 and hit his head in the dirt. Then the train collided with the rear of number 83 and Casey Jones was killed. That was basically the story from J.M. Newberry, but I think there is more to the story than Mr. Newberry’s statement.

Inside the cabin of 382, there was one person who would survive the crash, the fireman, Sim Webb. He was the only witness to what took place in the cabin that fateful night. Sim gave a picture of a confident and happy Casey Jones who was obviously feeling quite good about the run they had made. Sim said that when they left Durant Casey Jones had said “Oh, Sim! The old girl’s got her high-heeled slippers on to-night. We ought to pass Way on time.” Sim Webb said that was the last thing Casey said to him that night.

Of course Casey was in a great mood! I think I know Casey Jones pretty well by now, and I think he was a man who loved a challenge. If Casey were alive today he would probably be punching Mach 2 in an F-15. Here he was, at the controls of a thundering machine, having made a record run in poor weather. For Casey Jones things couldn’t get much better than this! I’m sure he was thinking that he would come swirling into Vaughan, blowing his whistle, and show the folks some flash.

As the number 1 train came into Vaughan everything happened at once. The official accident report was written on May 10, 1900 *. The following statement in that report sums up the situation in the engine cabin as testified to by Fireman Sim Webb:

“…Fireman Webb states that after talking with Jones, he stepped down to the deck to put in a fire, and just as he was in the act of stooping for the shovel, he heard the explosion of the torpedo. He immediately went to the gang-way on the engineer’s side and saw a flagman with red and white lights standing alongside the tracks; going then to the fireman’s side, he saw the markers on caboose of No. 83. He then called to the engineer, Jones, that there was a train ahead and feeling that the engineer would not be able to stop the train in time to prevent an accident, told him that he was going to jump off, which he did about 300 feet from the caboose of No. 83. Fireman Webb further states that when the torpedo exploded train No. 1 was running about 75 miles per hour; that engineer Jones immediately applied the air brakes and that when he left, the engine speed had been reduced to about 50 miles per hour.

“He also states that had he or Engineer Jones looked ahead, they could have seen the flagman in ample time to have stopped before striking No. 83. Train No. 25 was also flagged by flagman Newberry and stopped where he stood, which was the same location from which train No. 1 was flagged….”*

* Taken from the Casey Jones Accident Report http://www.trainweb.org/caseyjones/report.html


Seconds from impact.

Number 1 probably struck number 83 at a speed of 40 miles per hour. Casey Jones had been able to slow the train enough that when the collision happened the damage was not catastrophic. The caboose and two boxcars on number 83 were damaged. Engine 382 had left the track and rolled over, the baggage car and mail car were damaged, but none of the coaches were damaged. Four people on the No. 1 train received light injuries including Fireman Webb. Two other people were “jarred.” Casey Jones had stayed at the controls to the end, and probably because of his actions no lives were lost other than his own.

There are different accounts of how he died, but it seems that he was struck in the throat by either a bolt or a section of wood, possibly from the caboose, and was removed from the locomotive alive. He was laid down on a baggage car at the station where he passed away.

Years after the accident, Sim Webb claimed that there was no flagman in place at the time of the accident. Was this possible? I decided to try to investigate the facts of the wreck by creating a simulation using Trainz and seeing if there was anything that could help get a better picture of the events of the crash. I ran the simulation and compared what I was seeing against the official accident report. Something did not jell, but it took me awhile to figure out what was wrong. I had placed the flagman and torpedoes just as the information I had seen stated. I then ran the number 1 train into the rear cars of the number 83 train again and again. Finally I realized what was wrong.

In the accident report, Sim Webb had stated that he heard the torpedo explode, then went to the gang-way and saw the flagman with the red and white lanterns. This was impossible. He could not have seen the flagman after the torpedoes exploded because the flagman had been positioned 500-800 feet before the torpedoes. Once the torpedoes exploded the train would have already been too far past the flagman’s position for him to be seen. If Sim did see the flagman at this point, the flagman had to be out of position. As to why the flagman might have been out of position, it is possible that after he flagged the number 25 freight through, he heard the commotion as number 72 broke the air hose and everything got jammed up with number 83 fouling the main line. He may have gone to number 83 to find out what the situation was, assuming he had time before Casey Jones showed up. He then started back to his position, but Casey Jones came roaring out of the mist before he was all the way back to his position. If this is what happened, Casey Jones lost a good 500-800 feet of stopping distance. Having that extra stopping distance could have prevented the collision.

Oh well, the accident happened 104 years ago and Casey and all the people who were involved in the crash are together now up in the Promised Land. They can talk over the details upstairs, but I do know this. Casey Jones did the best he could right up to the end. Clear track ahead, Casey!


"Casey Jones mounted to the cabin, took his farewell trip to the Promised Land."

Casey Jones Simulation

In case you are interested in trying out the simulation yourself, I have uploaded a .cdp file to the Trainz Download Station. I uploaded it on March 26, so it should be available for download by the time this article is published. The simulation is named: Casey Jones Simulation and the kuid number is: KUID 2:46429:101673:0. All the items in the simulation are standard issue in TRS2004, so no additional downloads are required other than suggested rolling stock. Please read the text file instructions, which are included in the map folder. These instructions detail the weather and time conditions. It also gives ideas for suggested rolling stock and their KUID numbers for downloading from the Download Station.



Article and screen shots ©2004 John D'Angelo. All rights reserved.