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Kentucky by Heart: Legendary train engineer ‘Casey’ Jones spent much of his childhood in Western Ky.

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

John Luther “Casey” Jones was a Kentucky-raised boy who grew up to gain beloved stature as a train engineer, known all over America. But that wide acclaim came after his tragic death — though heroic — by a train accident in Mississippi.

Casey Jones (Photo courtesy Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum)

Jones life and story reached dramatic heights when in 1909, two vaudevillians, Eddie Newton and T. Lawrence Seibert, published the first copyrighted version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones” under their names. Previously, Wallace Saunders, an illiterate engine wiper in Canton, Mississippi, made up the song about Casey and sang it while he worked, and others picked it up also.

Casey, according to most sources I’ve read (along with being noted so by his wife), was likely born in southeastern Missouri in 1863 (the date according to Casey’s mother’s family Bible). It is known, however, that as a child he moved with his parents in 1876 to the small community of Cayce, Kentucky, in the western part of the state. Laura Beaver, Director of the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, in Jackson, Tennessee, explained how he received his new name. She stated: “The nickname “Casey” was given to Jones by other railroaders because when they asked where he was from, Jones said ‘Cayce, Kentucky.’”

With adulthood, Casey lived in a boarding house in Jackson, Tennessee, and he fell in love with the daughter of the owners. After his marriage to Janie Brady, the two resided in Jackson, and he is generally accorded the terms “family man and teetotaler.”

A replica of Engine 382 (Photo courtesy Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum)

He worked as a brakeman for Mobile & Ohio Railroad on the route from Columbus, Kentucky, to Jackson, Tennessee, then as a fireman on the Jackson to Mobile, Alabama, route. In 1891, Casey Jones attained his lifetime goal by becoming a locomotive engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.

Though the event is not as well-known as the one at his death, he was given credit for saving the life of a small girl in 1895—five years before his heroism in the same state that took his life.

Beaver shared the story of the child rescue.

“When Casey and Bob Stephenson were pulling into Michigan City, Mississippi, Casey stepped out on the running board to oil the relief valves, then to the pilot beam to adjust the spark screen,” she said. “A group of children were playing among some rail cars on a nearby siding when the group, trailing a little girl, ran across the tracks in front of Casey’s train. When she froze on the tracks, Casey reached down and scooped her up off the tracks.”

Casey was known and respected by railroad men as “an artist with the engine,” said an author Billy Reed quoted in his book, Famous Kentuckians. Reed added: “Notorious for his heavy hand on the throttle, Casey also built a fine record for safety. Until the night he died, he never was involved in an accident in which anyone was killed or seriously injured.”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

And then, the fateful day on April 30, 1900, happened and it would enshrine Casey in American history. On that day, he pulled locomotive #382 out of Memphis at 12:50 a.m., one hour and thirty-five minutes behind schedule. He would hit speeds of 100 m.p.h. to make up time, and by the time he hit Grenada, Mississippi, he had made up sixty minutes. On down the line, he gained more time and was only fifteen minutes behind schedule when he went through Winona, Mississippi.

When Casey’s locomotive approached Vaughan, Mississippi, there was trouble. A train was stalled on the track, and when men attempted to move it, an air hose gave way and froze the wheels. Though Casey was able to decelerate #382 from seventy-five miles an hour to thirty-five, a collision into the stalled train caboose occurred. The fireman jumped out beforehand, but Casey remained in the cab and died in the collision — the only fatality.

It appears that the actions of Casey Jones saved the lives of others in the cars. Billy Reed explained that when rescue workers got to Casey, “they found his hands locked in a death grip on the brake and throttle.”

As mentioned earlier, the influence of the Casey Jones ballad helped bring him an iconic legacy, and in time, movies and television programs were made of his life. Unfortunately, a part of the ballad implied that Casey’s wife had an affair with another railroad man

Museum Director Beaver insists that it is untrue, and that Casey’s wife fought that story from the beginning. Beaver said of the writers: “They threw in what would appeal to the audience… it was in raucous times, presented in locations where people were drinking.” In other words, the mention of the affair was a lie, and for very selfish reasons.

Casey Jones is buried in Jackson. You can find out much more about his amazing life by visiting the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum Facebook page or emailing caseyjonesmuseum@gmail.com.

Sources: Famous Kentuckians (book), by Billy Reed (Courier-Journal, 1977); thefamouspeople.com; Casey Jones’ Death: 120 Years Later (Youtube.com); Casey Jones (2001 children’s book), by Allan Drummond; legacy.com; phone interview with Laura Beaver at the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, Jackson, TN; Wikipedia.com

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