Monday, April 30, 2012

Casey Jones' Last Ride

The most famous train wreck in U. S. history occurred in the early morning hours of April 30, 1900, when a passenger express piloted by John Luther “Casey” Jones plowed into the tail end of a disabled freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi. A resident of Jackson, Tennessee, the 6' 4" Jones had already achieved near-legendary status during nine years as an engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad. Bold and brave, perhaps almost to the point of recklessness, he once climbed out onto the very tip of the “cowcatcher” of his moving locomotive to snatch up a young girl who had frozen in fear on the tracks. In what might be taken as an additional touch of vanity (though it was fairly common practice for engineers of the period) he possessed a custom-built whistle, a six-fluted calliope that produced a distinctive, mournful, “whip-poor-will” call, which he would have mounted to his assigned locomotive. But it was his relentless commitment to punctuality—making up for lost time under nearly impossible circumstances had become a particular specialty of his—that really made him the darling of his superiors at the I.C.R.R., and which sealed his fate on that dark, foggy night.

At the throttle of the northbound Chicago & New Orleans Limited, Casey pulled into Memphis, Tennessee, per his usual m. o., exactly on time, which was just before midnight, on Sunday, April 29. Though his shift for the evening was supposed to be over at that point, upon discovering that the scheduled engineer for the corresponding southbound run was ill, Jones volunteered to double-back with it as far as Canton, Mississippi, 188 miles away. After delays associated with the switch (including mounting Casey's “Whip-poor-will” whistle atop assigned Engine No. 382, a powerful locomotive with 6' driving wheels), the “Cannonball”, as it was popularly called, pulled out of Memphis 95 minutes behind schedule. Running at top speeds of around 80 mph, Casey and fireman Sim Webb had shaved 55 minutes off the delay by the time they made a stop for water in Grenada, Mississippi, 102 miles into the run. As they neared Vaughan, Mississippi, just ten miles from their destination, the delay had been whittled down to a mere handful of minutes, and, with nothing but “fast track” (i.e. no speed-restricted curves) ahead, Casey bragged to Webb that they would make it into Canton “on the advertised” time of 4:05 AM after all.

But unexpectedly, a complicated “saw-by” procedure involving two overly-long freight trains on a siding at Vaughan went awry when a bursted air hose left several cars and the caboose of the southbound freight sticking out onto the main line. As “Ole 382” rounded a gentle left hand curve, fireman Webb was the first to discern the lights of the freight’s caboose through the thick fog ahead, and he frantically alerted the engineer of the impending disaster. Casey immediately threw the wheels in reverse, applied the emergency airbrakes, laid on the whistle, and ordered his fireman to jump. With 300' left between the two trains and closing fast, Webb reluctantly obeyed. The engine plowed through the caboose, one freight car of baled hay, and another of shelled corn before leaving the track, rolling onto its side, and expiring in a sickening carnage of twisted metal, splintered wood, and escaping steam. Through self-sacrificial bravery that was the hallmark of his era, Casey, in his final moments, slowed the train from an estimated 75 mph down to about 35 mph at the point of collision, ensuring that his own would be the only fatality. (His mangled corpse was pulled from the wreckage shortly thereafter. Sim Webb was knocked unconscious and suffered a dislocated shoulder as as result of his leap, and a few other passengers and crew members sustained non-life-threatening injuries.)

The wreck and Jones’ bravery in particular have been commemorated in numerous ballads and songs throughout the intervening century (some with scarcely more than nominal connection to the actual events), making the name of “Casey Jones” a genuine American folk icon. Casey Jones Village, featuring a fine restaurant, country store, and railroad museum, right next to Casey’s old home in Jackson, Tennessee, is definitely worth a stop if you’re ever traveling I-40 between Memphis and Nashville.

The above artwork was done by yours truly as a companion piece (obviously) to the one of the locomotive General covered in my previous post.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Great Locomotive Chase

A century-and-a-half ago this fine spring day (Saturday, April 12, 1862), an early morning passenger train pulled out of Atlanta, Georgia, bound northward for Chattanooga, Tennessee. After making several stops just north of Atlanta, including Marietta, where a somewhat curious party of about twenty men boarded, the train rolled into Big Shanty (Kennesaw) at about 6AM for a scheduled 20 minute breakfast stop (for crew members as well as passengers) at a hotel adjacent to the tracks. The sumptuous southern fare had barely been served when the train’s conductor, William A. Fuller, happened to glance out the window, and then cried out in disbelief as he saw the locomotive, manned by some of the strangers who had boarded at Marietta, speed away, carrying with it three empty freight cars that were coupled behind the tender, and leaving the rest of the train behind.

Conductor Fuller, along with the engineer and another railroad official, at first believing the thieves were likely deserters from a nearby Confederate training encampment, set off in pursuit on foot. In fact, the score of men who had hijacked the General, as the engine was called (locomotives in the romantic, early days of steam typically had names in addition to mere numbers), were Yankee spies whose audacious design was to tear up track, burn bridges and cut telegraph wires all the way to Chattanooga, in coordination with a planned surprise attack toward that city from the west, along the Tennessee-Alabama border, by a modest-sized Union force. With the railroad severely disabled, it was supposed, the Confederates at Chattanooga would be unable to receive vital supplies and reinforcements from Atlanta, and the city would readily fall into Federal hands.

And the scheme almost worked. James J. Andrews, the charismatic leader of the raid, managed to connive and sweet-talk his way through and around every difficulty and every suspicious objector they met along the way. But despite this, several key factors began to work against the raiders. The recent rainy weather hampered their attempts to set fire to the bridges and trestles. The track was also jammed by a series of unscheduled freight trains being rushed south from Chattanooga, which caused significant and unexpected delays. (The raid actually occurred a day behind that which had originally been coordinated, and the Confederates at Chattanooga had already been spooked by the Union force's capture of Huntsville, Alabama the day before.) But perhaps most significantly, the tenacity of the pursuing railroad crew had been wholly unanticipated. Having started the chase on foot, Fuller and company soon commandeered a pole car, then a series of locomotives, and steadily gained on the raiders throughout the day. As the afternoon wore on, the pursuers, now aboard the locomotive Texas, which they were obliged to run in reverse, began to draw within whistle shot, and finally within sight of the fleeing raiders. But the General was running critically low on fuel and, with the pursuers hot on their heels, the raiders were forced to abandon it a few miles short of the Tennessee line and scatter to the woods, “every man for himself”. All 22 of the conspirators were eventually captured and eight of them, including Andrews, were hanged as spies.

The General, after repairs for minor damage sustained during the course of the raid, went promptly back into service for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. It sustained heavy damage during the conflagration of Atlanta in 1864, as can be seen in this photograph, which shows it (or what is left of it) parked on the tracks close to an exploded ammunition depot. After extensive rebuilding, it continued active service for a couple more decades, and then, over the next eighty years, underwent at least two refurbishings, touring the country for various Civil War commemorations. Today it rests in The Southern Musem, in Kennesaw, just beside the tracks and only yards away from the spot where Andrews and his fellow raiders made off with it on that April morn long ago. (The Texas, following a somewhat parallel fate, now resides inside Atlanta’s Cyclorama.)

The illustration at top was done by myself a number of years ago to hang in my sons’ bedroom.

One of the greatest films of the silent era, Buster Keaton’s The General was inspired by and (very) loosely based on the events of the Andrews Raid. That film in turn inspired the iconic 1972 poster art shown above, by master designer/illustrator David Lance Goines. Disney’s 1956 film version of the adventure is quite faithful to the actual events, and also a must-see. Here’s a great clip, featuring Slim Pickens as Texas engineer Peter Bracken. (Note the bacon frying on the the firebox door.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Allegri's Miserere from Memory

1770 A.D. Rome. The Sistine Chapel. It is Wednesday in Holy Week. Several hours before dawn, worshippers assemble in the famous chapel, adorned with the legendary frescoes of Michelangelo, for the Tenebrae service. Among them are an Austrian gentleman (the unique nature of this particular service draws visitors from all over Europe) and his teenage son. The service itself consists of a ritual extinguishing of candles, accompanied by readings, prayers, and musical settings of appointed texts. Most notable among these latter is a setting of Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus - Have mercy upon me, O God) composed a century-and-a-half prior by Gregorio Allegri. An aura of mystique surrounds this musical work, reported to be an exceptionally beautiful and intricately polyphonic interplay between two choirs, totaling nine separate voices. So highly is it prized by the Roman Church, that transcribing or performing the music elsewhere is forbidden under the threat of excommunication.

The service proceeds. The glorious Miserere is sung, to the enraptured delight of all present, especially those guests who are hearing it for the first time. As the service concludes, a final lit candle is briefly hidden away under the altar and then reproduced, providing just enough light for the worshippers to find the exit. As they file out silently, the Austrian gentleman looks down with upraised eyebrows toward his son. In the dim light, the son returns his father's questioning glance with a precocious grin and a wink of the eye. Later in the day, back in their quarters elsewhere in the city, the boy takes pen to paper and transcribes, from memory, Allegri’s Miserere from beginning to end. The pair return again to the chapel for the Good Friday Tenebrae Service, the only other time in the whole year when the piece is performed. This second hearing furnishes opportunity for the boy to make the few additional mental notes he needs in order to perfect the transcription.

The father and son are, of course, Leopold and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was fourteen at the time. During their subsequent travels, they shared the transcription with a British historian, who took a copy home with him to London and published it the following year. When it became known who was responsible, the Pope, rather than excommunicating Mozart, instead heaped laudations upon the boy for his impish genius. The ban was lifted, and today Allegri’s Miserere is among the most highly regarded of a cappella choral works.