April 30, 1900 Two Minutes Late

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

Acts of heroism have a way of popping up, in the most unexpected places. Ordinary people rising to the occasion, in anything but ordinary circumstances.

Just recently, two teenage boys chased down a kidnapper on their bicycles, freeing a little girl from captivity.  The Poway, California Rabbi grabs hold of a gun in the hands of a demented killer, losing a finger and saving untold numbers of congregants, in the process.  An eight-month’s pregnant mother-to-be dives into the Australian surf, to save two drowning boys.

This is one of those stories.

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Jonathon Luther Jones lived near Cayce Kentucky as a boy, and the nickname stuck. For reasons which remain unclear, he preferred to spell it, “Casey”.

Casey Jones was a train man, working on the I.C.R.R., the Illinois Central Railroad.

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Jonathon Luther “Casey” Jones

One example of the man’s character comes to us from 1895, when Jones was thirty two. Outside Michigan City Mississippi, a group of children darted across the tracks, fewer than sixty yards from the speeding train.  Most made it across except one little girl, who froze in terror before the oncoming locomotive.

With fellow engineer Bob Stevenson hauling back on the emergency brakes and buying precious extra moments, Jones ran across the running boards and inched his way down the pilot, better known as the “cow catcher”.

This is no trick rider.  No circus acrobat.  Casey Jones worked on the railroad. Bracing himself with his legs, Jones reached out and scooped up the little girl, at the last possible moment. 

On this occasion, the man had every hope and expectation of remaining alive, and that he did.  Five years later, he’d perform his last act of heroism in the face of certain and violent, death.

Casey Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad where he performed well, receiving first a promotion to brakeman, and then to fireman. He met Mary Joanna (“Janie”) Brady around this time, whose father owned the boarding house, where Jones lived. The pair fell in love and married on November 11, 1886, buying a house in Jackson Alabama where the couple raised their three children. By all accounts the man was sober and devoted to his work, a dedicated family man.

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Several crews from the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) were down with yellow fever in the summer of 1887. Fireman Jones went to work for the IC the following year, firing a freight run between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

Casey Jones had a knack for these complex and powerful machines. He was good at what he did and an aggressive risk taker. Ambitious for advancement, Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions over the course of his career, resulting in 145 days’ suspension.  He was well liked by fellow railroaders but widely regarded, as just this side of reckless.

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Jones achieved his lifelong goal of becoming an engineer in 1891.  He was well  known, for being on time. Jones insisted he never “fall down” and get behind schedule. People learned to set their watches by his train whistle, knowing he would always “get her there on the advertised” (time).

Jones moved his family to Memphis in 1900, transferring to the “cannonball run” between Chicago and New Orleans. The run was a four train passenger relay, advertising the fastest travel times in the history of the American railroad. Experienced engineers were worried about the ambitious schedule and some even quit, but Jones saw the new itinerary as an opportunity for advancement.

How a steam locomotive, works

On this day in 1900, Engine #382 departed Memphis at 12:05am, ninety-five minutes behind schedule due to the late arrival of the first leg, of the relay.

The Memphis to Canton, Mississippi run was 190 miles long and normally took 4 hours, 50 minutes at an average speed of 39 MPH. 95 minutes was a lot of time to make up but #382 was a fast engine and traveling “light” that night, with only six cars.

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Fireman Simeon “Sim” T. Webb

Fireman Simeon Taylor “Sim” Webb was one of the best. He would have to be. This would be a record breaking run.

Jones hit the Johnson bar, throttling #382 up to 80 MPH despite sharp turns and visibility reduced by fog. There were two stops for water and a brief halt on a side track, to let another engine through. Despite all that, #382 made up most of that time by the 155-mile mark. On leaving the side track in Goodman, Mississippi, Jones was only five minutes behind the advertised arrival time of 4:05am.

Jones was well acquainted with those last 25 miles into Vaughn Mississippi.  There were few turns and the engineer throttled his engine up to breakneck speed. He  was thrilled with his time, saying “Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!”

Unknown to Casey, there was a problem ahead. Three trains were in the station at Vaughn, with a combined length ten cars longer, than the main siding. Rail yard workers performed a “saw by” maneuver, backing #83 onto the main line and switching overlapping cars onto the “house track”. Then there was that problem with an air hose. Four cars were stranded on the main line.

#382 sped through the final curve at 75MPH, only two minutes behind schedule. Clinging to the side board, Sim Webb was the first to see the red lights, of the caboose. “Oh my Lord”, he yelled, “there’s something on the main line!”

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Jones didn’t have a prayer of stopping in time. He was moving too fast. He reversed throttle and slammed the air brakes into emergency stop, screaming “Jump Sim, jump!” Sim Webb jumped clear with only 300 feet to go as the piercing scream of the train’s whistle, rent the air.

Jones could have jumped himself. His ordering Webb to do so, demonstrates he understood the situation.  Casey Jones stayed on the train as “Ole 382” plowed through the red wooden caboose and three freight cars, before leaving the track. By the time of impact, Jones frantic efforts had slowed the engine to 35 miles per hour, saving his passengers from serious injury or death. Jones himself was the only fatality, his watch stopped at 3:52am.  He was only two minutes behind schedule.

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Passenger Adam Hauser of the New Orleans Times-Democrat was in a sleeper car, at the time of the wreck: “The passengers did not suffer” he said, “and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life”.

Legend has it that, when Jones’ body was removed, his dead hands still clutched the whistle cord, and the brake.

Casey Jones has achieved mythological status since that day, alongside the likes of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” was recorded by Mississippi John Hurt, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead, among others.

Jones’ son Charles was 12 at the time of  his death at age 37, his daughter Helen, 10.  The  youngest, John Lloyd (“Casey Junior”) was 4.  Janie received two life insurance payments totaling $3,000 as Casey was “Double Heading” at that time, as a member of two unions.   she received no other compensation.  The Railroad Retirement Fund didn’t come about, until 1937.

Janie never had any thought of remarrying and lived the rest of her years, dressed in black.  She died on November 21, 1958 in Jackson Alabama, at the age of 92

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A Trivial Matter
In 1907, brakeman Jesus Garcia drove his flaming train away from the small mining town of Nacozari, in the Mexican state of Sonora. The train was carrying dynamite, and blew up,  Killing Garcia.  His quick actions had saved the town, where Jesus Garcia remains a hero, to this day.
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Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I began writing "Today in History" nearly six years ago, as sort of a self-guided history course.  I told myself I’d write 365, the leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I believe there are over 600. I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong as the next guy. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Rick Long

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