Practically every American has heard of the storied railroad engineer of the late 1800’s, Casey Jones, made famous throughout the years in song, story, and film. But it is generally not known that he was baptized a Catholic at the age of twenty-two in Saint Bridget’s Church in Whistler, Alabama, near the coastal city of Mobile.
This little tidbit of information became known to me recently when I traveled to the South. We had occasion to be in Mobile on the weekend of April 2. It is always a challenge to find a Traditional Mass when one travels to unfamiliar places; so in my pre-trip search I came upon a Traditional Mass celebrated once a month, providentially for us, on the first Sunday, at a small country church in the town of Whistler, now within greater Mobile. This little church was built in the 1860’s and is still in regular use as a parish church, part of the Archdiocese of Mobile.
Casey – whose real name was John Luther Jones – was born somewhere in southern Missouri in 1863, son of a schoolteacher, Frank, and his wife, Ann. The moniker “Casey” was adopted because in 1876 the family moved to Cayce, Kentucky, and when John was asked where he was from by some railroad men, they branded him “Casey” after his hometown.
A Natural Railroader
Even as a youngster, Casey was fascinated by trains and determined to make his living as a part of the burgeoning railroad system of the country. Trains became “the way to go” at this time in our country’s history, both for delivering freight and for passenger travel. His first job at the age of fifteen was with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad as a telegrapher and later as brakeman and fireman. His company soon transferred him to the important railroad town of Jackson, Tennessee. This was the move that was to be the cause of his conversion to Catholicism, for he boarded at the home of one Mrs. Brady, whose abode was a boarding house for the traveling railroad workers. The Brady family were practicing Catholics and they must have had a good influence on Casey. Smitten by Mrs. Brady’s daughter, Janie, Casey decided to become a Catholic. He was baptized at Saint Bridget’s outside of Mobile on November 11, 1886, because his regular run would regularly put him in this city. Marriage followed soon after on November 25 of that same year, at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Jackson, Tennessee, which was the Jones’ home at the time.
Casey was later transferred to Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked for the Illinois Central line on their passenger train, which originated in New Orleans and brought passengers all the way to Chicago. (This train still runs as the “Panama Limited.”) Casey ran one link of that four-train run between the two growing cities. During his career, Casey developed a reputation for getting his freight and passengers to their destinations on time: “get there on the advertised” was the railroad expression. Needless to say, there were times that he took many chances during bad weather to make up time lost on the previous run. He had a reputation for bravery, as well. Once, rounding a bend, he spotted a group of school girls crossing the tracks ahead. All of them crossed safely, except for one girl. She seemed mesmerized by the approaching engine and frozen to the tracks. Casey slowed the train as much as he could, climbed out on to the “cow catcher” and snatched the child to safety, bringing her into the engine room unscathed.
Railroaders were a close-knit bunch in those days, and his reputation for courage and promptness in his duties spread far and wide. By the time he went on his final run – he was only thirty-seven – he was a famous engineer.
The Fateful, Fatal Night
On the morning of April 29, 1900, Casey and Sim Webb, his fireman, pulled into Memphis from Canton, Mississippi. The plan was for them to lay over in Memphis until the next day when they would make the run back to Canton. However, the regular engineer for that day’s return run became ill and Casey and Sim were asked to make the return to Canton that night. Always a dedicated railroader, Casey agreed. The train coming into Memphis from Chicago was late, and they didn’t pull out of Memphis until 12:20 AM, an hour and a half late. Casey was determined to make up the time and get to Canton “on the advertised.” More than halfway into the run, Casey at the steam and Sim at the fire, they had made up all but two minutes. As they approached Vaughan, Mississippi, a problem with locked brakes on a long train, Number 83, caused that train to leave four cars on the main line and the cars couldn’t be moved to let Casey’s train pass.
Tragically, Casey was unable to see the situation; it was dark, raining, and foggy, and they were on a blind S-curve. Coming out of the last curve, Sim noticed the red lights on the caboose just ahead. “O, my Lord, there’s something on the main line!” Sim yelled. Casey reversed the throttle, hit the brakes and reverse lever and sounded a long blast on the whistle. Casey’s last words were “Jump, Sim, jump!” Sim waited a few seconds, swung down low and jumped off the engine, being knocked unconscious when he hit the ground.
Engine 382 plowed through the wooden caboose, a carload of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the tracks. Casey was found dead beside the tracks. It was 3:52 AM. There was some controversy about the exact cause of his death, but the fact remained that he had indeed died as a result of the crash.
Although the official report of the accident found Engineer Jones solely responsible for the wreck for having disregarded the signals given by the flagman, fireman Sim maintained until his death in 1957 that there was “no flagman or flare; we heard no torpedoes.” In other words, any warning was either too late or non-existent. Casey was the only fatality. His train carried many passengers on that run, and it was because of Casey’s quick thinking and self-sacrificing actions that the only injuries to them were minor, with the majority suffering no injuries at all.
Casey was buried from the same church, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, that he and Janie had been married in fourteen years before. He left three children and many friends to mourn his untimely death.
Shortly after the terrible accident, an engine wiper who worked in the Canton roundhouse, Wallace Saunders, began singing a song he had made up about Casey, his dedication to his profession and the accident. Other railroad workers picked up the ditty and it spread like wildfire, making Casey’s exploits legendary, not just within the railroading community, but among the public in general. (To find the words to the song, The Ballad of Casey Jones, see http://www.trainweb.org/caseyjones/song.html.)