Broadcast: June 27, 2004
I’m Gwen Outen.
And I’m Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today, we tell the story of Casey Jones. He was a famous railroad engineer. His life has been described and celebrated in stories and songs.
Many Americans are very interested in railroad trains that were pulled by steam-powered engines a long time ago. Steam engines produced bright, fiery particles and clouds of smoke as they traveled across the countryside. People who miss steam engines often say each one had its own personality. They say the engines were living, breathing things -- not machines. A railroad lover would say: “Airplanes, space vehicles and automobiles are fine -- but I wish I was back in the days of Casey Jones.”
John Luther Jones was born in eighteen-sixty-four in the state of Kentucky. As a boy, he lived in the small town of Cayce, Kentucky. It is from this town that he got the name Casey.
The young man’s first railroad experience was with the Mobile (MO-beel) and Ohio Railroad in Columbus, Kentucky. At age fifteen, he worked as a telegraph operator. He sent and received messages for the railroad.
Later, Casey Jones accepted a job as a brakeman for the Mobile and Ohio. He inspected railroad cars and assisted other train crew members. Then, he became a fireman on the company’s rail line between Columbus and Mobile, Alabama. He added coal to the fires that powered the steam engines.
Casey Jones grew to be a tall man. He was one-hundred-ninety-three centimeters tall. He married a woman named Janie Brady. In eighteen-eighty-eight, Casey Jones joined the Illinois Central Railroad. He worked as a fireman on the rail line between Jackson, Tennessee and Water Valley, Mississippi. There were a lot of job possibilities with the Illinois Central. In two years, he became a driver, or engineer, with the company. This was the job he always wanted. He operated trains between Jackson and Water Valley for the next nine years.
Casey Jones spent the summer of eighteen-ninety-three in Chicago, Illinois. Large crowds gathered there for a major event -- the Chicago World’s Fair. Jones provided rides for people going to and coming from the fairgrounds. He drove a steam engine known by its number: six-thirty-eight. At the end of the World’s Fair, number six-thirty-eight was supposed to return to Water Valley, Mississippi for repairs. Jones asked for and received permission to drive the engine there.
Casey Jones loved steam engines. He would talk to engine six-thirty-eight as the train was climbing a hill. He would say: “Come on, honey, you can do it.” When he pulled the whistle, he would say: “Sing, sweetie. Kiss the wind with your voice.”
((CUT ONE: SFX: train whistle))
Jones became famous as the driver whose train was never late. He always brought his train in to a station on time. He also was famous for his skill at making different sounds with a railroad whistle. He would blow the whistle so it started softly, but would increase to a loud cry before disappearing. People would recognize that sound and knew when he was passing through the area. Whenever they heard it, they would say: “Casey Jones is coming, sure as the day of judgement.”
(CUT ONE: SFX train whistle)
In nineteen-hundred, Casey Jones was given the job of driving the Cannonball Express. This passenger train operated between Memphis, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi. It was a difficult trip of about three-hundred kilometers, with several dangerous areas and turns. Some engineers avoided the trip, fearing for their safety. But not Casey Jones. Everything was fine until April twenty-ninth. That night, Jones completed his normal Cannonball Express run from Canton to Memphis with his fireman, Sim Webb.
Just as Jones was leaving the train, he heard that his replacement on the next train was sick. The supervisor asked Jones if he would like to drive the train from Memphis to Canton. Both he and Webb were tired, but they agreed. Jones told the supervisor he wanted to use his own engine. Jones and his fireman had to wait while the train was prepared for the trip. Finally, they climbed on the steam engine and set off into the night, more than an hour late.
Casey had orders not to arrive late in Canton. This was not a problem for Casey. He asked Sim Webb to add extra coal to the engine to make it travel faster.
There are different reports about what happened early the next morning, as the train sped through Mississippi. The problems started near the little town of Vaughan. Three other trains were already in the area. However, their crews had begun taking action to let the Cannonball pass.
Everything would have been fine, except for a mechanical problem. An air hose in one of the other trains burst. This caused a delay in clearing the rail line. Some cars were still on the main line and could not move.
The Cannonball continued speeding forward. Suddenly, Casey saw the other train. Quickly, he pulled the whistle and pushed the brake to slow the Cannonball. But he knew it was too late. He told Sim Webb to jump off the train. However, Casey stayed on the train.
Some people say the sound the engine made as it hit the other train was like the Earth had burst. The passengers and crew survived the train wreck. Among them was fireman Sim Webb.
However, Casey did not survive. His body was discovered in the wreckage. One hand was still holding the brake. The other was holding the whistle. Because he stayed on the train, he had slowed the Cannonball enough so that none of the passengers were hurt. He had sacrificed his life for them.
The body of Casey Jones was returned to his hometown of Jackson, Tennessee. That is where he was buried.
Railroad officials ordered an investigation into the wreck of the Cannonball. The investigation found that Casey Jones alone was responsible for the crash. He had not reacted to signs that he should stop the train. However, people also remembered his love of railroads and how he died trying to save the lives of others.
The story of Casey Jones would have ended with his death if not for a black man named Wallace Saunders. Saunders was a railroad worker who knew Jones from his stops in Canton, Mississippi. Saunders was deeply saddened by his friend’s death. He decided to create a song to honor the famous engineer. It is called “The Ballad of Casey Jones.”
Visitors to Canton heard Saunders performing the song. One visitor liked what he heard, but decided to change some of the words. Soon, the song became popular, and found its way to Vaudeville shows. Vaudeville was the most popular form of show business in the United States in the early nineteen-hundreds. The popularity of the song helped keep the memory of Casey Jones alive.
Today, “The Ballad of Casey Jones” is still heard when Americans gather to sing songs of long ago. Listen now as Ernie Sheldon and the Villagers perform “Casey Jones.”
((CUT THREE: Casey Jones LP-5395 1:30))
In nineteen-thirty-eight, Jones was honored in his boyhood home of Cayce, Kentucky. Today, there are museums named in his honor in Water Valley and in Vaughan, Mississippi. The museums also keep the memory of Casey Jones alive.
(THEME OR MORE CASEY JONES UNDER CLOSE)
This program was written by George Grow. Caty Weaver was our producer. I’m Steve Ember.
And I’m Gwen Outen. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.