Jackson, TN - Unlike many other legendary characters in American history, such as Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, the story of Casey Jones is a true one. It began on March 14, 1863 in Missouri when Jonathan Luther Jones was born. In 1876 his family moved to Kentucky and settled in the small community of Cayce. When he told people he was from Cayce, the nickname Casey Jones took hold.
In 1878, at the age of fifteen, he left home to become a railroad man. On April 29, 1900 Casey and Sim Webb pulled into Memphis where they were supposed to lay over until the next day before making the run back. However, Sam Tate, the regular engineer, had become ill and Casey agreed to take his place and make the return run that night. He asked for his regular engine No. 382. No. 1 out of Chicago was late and Casey and Sim did not leave the Memphis station until approximately 12:30 am...an hour and a half late.
A fast engine, a good fireman, and a light train were ideal for a record-setting run of the 188 miles from Memphis to Canton. And even though it was raining, steam trains operated best in damp conditions. But it was also quite foggy that night, which reduced visibility. And the run was well-known for its tricky curves, which could prove deadly.
By the time he got to Durant, 155 miles south of Memphis, he was almost on time. His orders instructed him that he was to meet a northbound passenger at Vaughan, but he would have priority over it. He pulled out of Goodman only five minutes behind. With 27 miles of fast track ahead Jones doubtless felt that he had a good chance to make it to Canton by 4:05 AM "on the advertised".
But the stage was being set for a tragic wreck at Vaughan, 15 miles away. There were three other trains at Vaughan – 2 freights and one passenger. They were trying to get all three trains off the main track but four cars overlapped on the main line right in Casey’s path. They were preparing another track when an air hose broke on No. 72, locking its brakes and leaving the last four cars of No. 83 on the main line.
Meanwhile, Jones was almost back on schedule, running at about 75 miles per hour toward Vaughan, unaware of the danger ahead, since he was traveling through a 1.5-mile left-hand curve which blocked his view. Webb's view from the left side of the train was better, and he was first to see the red lights of the caboose on the main line. "Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!" he yelled to Jones. Jones quickly yelled back "Jump Sim, jump!" to Webb, who crouched down and jumped about 300 feet before impact and was knocked unconscious. The last thing Webb heard when he jumped was the long, piercing scream of the whistle as Jones tried to warn anyone still in the freight train looming ahead. He was only two minutes behind schedule about this time.
Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but "Ole 382" quickly plowed through a wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the track. He had amazingly reduced his speed from about 75 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour when he hit with a deafening crunch of steel against steel and splintering wood. Because Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he saved his passengers from serious injury and death. Casey himself was the only fatality of the collision. His watch was found to be stopped at the time of impact which was 3:52 AM on April 30, 1900.
A black man named Wallace Saunders worked in the roundhouse in Canton. He was an engine wiper and loved to sing. He remembered Casey in rhyme and a catchy tune that soon would become a favorite of his fellow workers and eventually the world.