While our library may have McCracken County in its name, in truth we serve patrons from all over Western Kentucky, so today’s historical tale comes to you from Fulton County.
Yesterday in Western Kentucky history, April 30, 1900, we remembered the anniversary of the death of a legend, and not just a Kentucky legend, but a true American legend.
Jonathan Luther Jones.
Never heard of him? Hmmmm. Well, perhaps you know him better by his nickname.
That’s right. Casey Jones, fabled in story and song, was a true-to-life figure. Though born in 1863 in Jackson, Tennessee, Jones spent most of his formative years in Fulton County, Kentucky…in the town of Cayce…and if you’re able to put two and two together, I’m sure you can now devise how his famed nickname came about.
Jones went to work for the railroads in his early twenties and by 1891, at the age of 28, he’d already been promoted to engineer. In short order his talents were recognized by his peers, for he was heralded as always being on time, “to get her there on the advertised.” It is said that people set their watches by Casey’s trains.
Of course, his record for punctuality may have occasionally come at the expense of a few rules. In the course of his career, Jones was cited with 9 infractions, which included 145 total days of suspension. Such ambition and drive (not to mention old-fashioned bad luck) were perhaps, factors in his death on that April morning. His train, “The Cannonball Express,” was scheduled to leave Memphis, TN at 11:35 PM and arrive in Canton, MS at 4:05 AM, but because of the tardiness of a previous train, Casey wasn’t able to pull away from the Memphis station until 1 AM. Ever determined, Casey, along with his trusted fireman Simeon Webb, vowed to make a record run and get the train to Canton on time.
The skies spit rain, and the fog was swimmingly thick. The tracks on that stretch were known for some harrowing curves, yetdespite the challenges, Jones and Webb traveled at breakneck speed, pushing the Cannonball Express to heretofore unknown limits. Within the first hundred miles, they had already made up one hour of the lost 95 minutes.
Casey Jones was still doing a brisk clip, about 75 miles an hour, as he approached the city of Vaughan, MS, and it wasn’t until he rounded the blind 1.5 mile curve that would take him into the station that Jones and Webb realized that another railroad car had stalled on the tracks in front them. A crash was inevitable. Jones hollered for his fireman to, “Jump, Sim, jump,” and Mr. Webb did, landing nearly 300 feet from the spot where he leaped, knocking himself unconscious.
Jones, like a good captain, stayed with his ship. He sounded the horn to warn those ahead, slammed on the air brakes, reversed the throttle, and somehow, inexplicably, before ramming the caboose of the stalled train, was able to bring the train from 75 miles an hour to 35.
Only one person was killed by the accident…Casey himself. While the rest of the passengers were shaken up and received a few scrapes and bruises, none of them were seriously injured. Even Simeon Webb recovered from his jump. Jones’ decision to stay on the train and slow it down certainly saved the lives of many.
At the time of the crash, the Cannonball Express was only two minutes behind schedule.
It didn’t take long for Casey Jones’ legend to begin. Papers the following day recalled his exploits under the headlines, “The Sad End of Casey Jones” and “Heroic Engineer.” One paper reported, “”The marvel and mystery is how Engineer Jones stopped that train. The railroad men themselves wondered at it and of course the uninitiated could not do less. But stop it he did. In a way that showed his complete mastery of his engine, as well as his sublime heroism.” Following these reports, the legend grew and grew, inspiring museums, stories, movies, cartoons, and a line of postage stamps. Certainly though, the legend found its greatest security in the enduring folksong, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,”
Come all you rounders if you want to hear
The story of a brave engineer
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
On the “six-eight” wheeler, boys, he won his fame
All this from a man nicknamed after a small town in Kentucky.
If you’d like to learn more about legendary Kentuckians, visit us at the Local and Family History Department at the McCracken County Public Library.