Casey Jones and the Cannonball Express
Published 3:21 pm Monday, May 22, 2023
BY JADON GIBSON
Trains played an important role in the 1800’s and it resulted in many young men like John Luther Jones wanting to become an engineer. He grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. When Jones turned twenty-one years of age in 1885, he applied for a job as fireman with the Illinois Central Railroad. The railroad hired the tall young man who seemed much older than his years.
After five years as fireman he fulfilled his lifetime dream by becoming an engineer on a freight train. His record included some minor infractions but he developed a reputation for bringing in his train on time.
When Illinois Central offered Jones the chance to be the engineer on a passenger train in 1897, he jumped at the opportunity. He had his engine equipped with a Whippoorwill whistle that he learned to blow distinctively. It began softly, then the tone would rise before dying away to a whisper. People living near the Illinois Central right of way learned to recognize his distinctive whistle.
Jones was known for keeping his big engine “as shiny as a new penny.” Wallace Saunders, a black engine wiper, was responsible for that and he idolized Jones. Later he would play a big role in the continuing popularity of John Luther Jones even in the modern era.
Soon thousands of people along Jones’ route came to know John Luther Jones by his wave and from his distinct train whistle. His fireman waved to those on the opposite side of the train.
In early 1900 Jones was piloting the fastest train in the fleet, the Cannonball Express, on a 190-mile run between Canton, Mississippi and Jackson, Tennessee. An hour after Jones completed the run from Canton to Memphis on April 30, 1900, he was notified that the engineer who was to make the southward run had not arrived for work. After investigating they found Joe Lewis had taken cramps and was too ill to command the train. Jones was asked to take the Cannonball Express on the southern run. He agreed but by the time the train departed it was an hour and a half behind schedule. Jones vowed to arrive in Canton on time.
His record was an enviable one since taking over on passenger trains. He had never lost a passenger while consistently bringing his train in on schedule.
Sim Webb accompanied Jones as fireman. He continuously shoveled coal as the train made a record-setting leg to Grenada 102 miles along the way. The Cannonball Express made up over fifty minutes during this segment of the run. The passengers were unusually quiet. Another thirty minutes were made up by the time they reached Winona.
Train personnel in Vaughn, Ms. attempted to clear the track for the Illinois Central by moving a slower southbound and a northbound train onto a side track.
One of the two trains however was too lengthy and the engineer was unable to get it completely off the main track. These circumstances called for a flagman to hurry up the track several hundred yards, explode flares and swing a red lantern as a warning to the oncoming train which was in this instance the fast-moving Cannonball Express. Yes, catch your breath as danger lies ahead!
If this was done neither Jones, nor his fireman saw it.
The Cannonball Express neared Vaughn at a speed between 75 and 80 miles per hour. Upon rounding a final curve Casey saw the train ahead on the track and knew a collision was imminent. He instinctively applied the brakes sending the train and crew and passengers into what seemed like a screeching eternity. The speed of the Cannonball Express reduced to 70, 60, 50, 40, as it bore down on the second train lying unavoidably stationary in the lights ahead.
“Jump, Sim, jump,” Jones yelled to his fireman as he saw that a collision was imminent.
Webb automatically accepted Jones’ order and leaped into the darkness. Jones stayed at the helm as the train continued to slow before colliding with the caboose and several cars of the other train, smashing them to splinters. In that era the caboose and many of the train cars were made of wood.
The train had slowed to the extent that none of the passengers were hurt. Jones’ record for never losing a passenger was intact but John Luther Jones himself was killed. He was the lone casualty, found with one hand on the whistle cord and the second on the air brake lever.
Jones was loved by his fellow workers and everyone along the route. His reputation grew when it became evident that he stayed with the train in order to slow it to its minimum speed in order to save his passengers and to diminish the loss.
The engineer had spent time growing up in Cayce, Kentucky, and was nicknamed Casey which had the same pronunciation.
Wallace Saunders, the black man who wiped down Casey Jones’ engine and idolized the young engineer wrote a melodic song about his friend. It became one of the most famous ballads ever written, memorializing Casey Jones, the brave engineer.
Everyone talked about him and sang about him as I grew up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
“Come, all you rounders, if you want to hear the story told of a brave engineer;
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name a high right-wheeler of mighty fame.
Of mighty fame, of mighty fame a high right-wheeler of mighty fame
Casey pulled into the Memphis yard fed up, beat down and dog tired
Another driver had called in sick asking Casey to do a double trip.
Casey smiled, said, I’m feelin’ fine. Gonna ride that train to the end of the line.
There’s ridges and bridges, and hills to climb. Got a head of steam and ahead of time. Got a head of steam and ahead of time.
Caller called Casey, half-past four. He kissed his wife at the station door.
Climbed into the cab, orders in his hand Could be my trip to (the) Promised Land.
Through South Memphis on the fly The fireman say, You got a white eye.
The switchmen knew the engine’s moan. The man at the throttle was Casey Jones
Was Casey Jones, was Casey Jones. The man at the throttle was Casey Jones.
The engine rocked, the drivers rolled. Fireman hollered, Save my soul!
I’m gonna roll her ’til she leaves the rails I’m behind time with the Southern mail.”
Jadon Gibson is a freelance writer from Harrogate, Tennessee. Thanks to Lincoln Memorial University, Alice Lloyd College and the Museum of Appalachia for their assistance.