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.

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