Casey Jones: Middle Class Hero

Replica of Casey’s Engine, The Casey Jones Museum, Jackson, TN

Casey Jones, the Engineer

John Luther “Casey” Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900) is a legendary American hero. Unlike many legends, Casey Jones was a real person, but his story achieved a mythic status mostly due to a folk song about him that became popular after his death.

Casey Jones was a railroad engineer who worked for the Illinois Central Railroad (IC).  He was killed in a train accident on April 30, 1900 when his passenger train collided with a freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi.

During his life, Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best engineers in the business.  He was fanatically punctual, insisting that the train arrive “on the advertised,”  meaning on time.  It is said that people set their watches according to his train. Jones also had a unique train whistle, a trademark sound that everyone recognized when they heard it.

Railroaders who worked with Casey Jones said he was a risk-taker, ambitious, and loved challenges.  He was eager to move up the ranks to drive the passenger trains, which paid more than freight and carried more status.

Fellow engineers described him thus:

The reputation which Casey enjoyed was richly earned by  numerous feats of resourcefulness, skill and downright daring. He could perform feats with his famous 38 that no other engineer could equal with locomotives of the same class, or even with the same engine

He was either lucky, or else his judgment was as nearly perfect as human judgment  could be.

Jones was famous for two things: he was a teetotaler in days when abstinence was rare, and he was the most daring of all  engineers in the days when schedules were simply ‘get her there and make the time, or come to the office and get your time.’

(Quotes from A Treasury of American Folklore, by B. A. Botkin)

Casey Jones, the Legend

Casey Jones Museum, Jackson TN

At the time Casey died in 1900, the United States was in an industrial boom. Americans identified with progress, motion, efficiency, timeliness, and the conquest of space through transport.  Casey Jones exemplified these ideals.

But it was an African American man, Wallace Saunders, who immortalized Jones in the popular ballad he wrote about his friend’s death. Casey Jones died partly from his obsession with punctuality and doing a good job, and partly out of a desire to save innocent lives.  The night of April 30, 1900, Jones was supposed to be on a layover but was called out to replace an engineer who had called in sick.

The train Jones was running that night was an hour and a half behind schedule, just the sort of challenge to bring out the best in him.  Jones was determined to make up the time and bring the train in “on the advertised.”  He started out of Memphis, TN at 11:15 P.M., and was planning to make Canton, MS on time at 4:05 in the morning.  However, when Jones turned the bend at Vaughan doing 75 mph, he saw that some of the cars from another train on the sidetrack were still sitting on the main line, right in his path.  Jones told his fireman to jump, but he remained onboard, applying the brake and doubtlessly slowing the train enough before impact to prevent the death of any of his passengers; Casey was the only casualty of the collision.  Legend has it that when his body was pulled from the wreck, he had “one hand on the whistle and one on the brake,” showing his total dedication in the face of certain death.

Casey Jones had all the characteristic American qualities of a “middle class hero.”  If Saunders’ ballad had not quickly gained popularity, though, not only would we probably not remember the man, but he no doubt would have fallen victim to a corporate  coverup.  The I.C.’s official report claimed Casey failed to notice a flagman who had been posted to alert him to the  presence of the other train, therefore Casey’s recklessness was to blame for the accident.  Casey Jones’  most valuable qualities, his persistence, passion, and ambition, were used against him in death to so that the Illionois Central could escape liability.  Most researchers, however, don’t believe any flagman had been posted, and that Casey Jones was clearly innocent of any wrongdoing.

Casey Jones, mounted the cabin,
Casey Jones, with the orders in his hand.
Casey Jones, he mounted the cabin,
Started on his farewell Journey to the promised land.

They pulled out of Memphis nearly two hours late,
Soon they were speeding at a terrible rate.
And the people knew by the whistle’s moan.
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

Need more coal there, fireman Sim,
Open that door and heave it in.
Give that shovel all you got
And we’ll reach Canton on the dot

On April 30, 1900, that rainy morn,
Down in Mississippi near the town of Vaughan,
Sped the Cannonball Special only two minutes late
Traveling 70 miles an hour when they saw a freight.

The caboose number 83 was on the main line,
Casey’s last words were “Jump, Sim, while you have the time.
“At 3:52 that morning came the fareful end,
Casey took his farewell trip to the promised land.

Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,
With the whistle in his hand.
Casey Jones, he died at the throttlle,
But we’ll all see Casey in the promised land.

from “The Ballad of Casey Jones

The original ballad of Casey Jones, as written by Saunders, emphasized Jones’ dedication, beginning his trip with “orders in his hand,” and compares his last run to the biblical metaphor of the journey to the promised land.  The promised land is a strong allusion in American folklore, usually tied to westward expansion and conquest of the continent, and is associated with the American fixation with movement and travel.  Moses led the Israelites through wilderness for 40 years before they found the promised land, but  Moses died before the people arrived.  This same metaphor was used by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his last speech before his death, when he tells his followers they will soon come into the promised land but that he most likely will not be around when they do.  Casey Jones, then, is a kind of industrial messiah, leading the country into a promised land of swift transportation and progress through his own dedication to American middle class values, but like other messiahs, he dies before arriving himself.

The Many Faces of Casey Jones

Ironically, although Jones’ employer the I.C. tried to pin the crash on his “recklessness,”  the socialists also used his story to depict him as selfish and careless, leading to his demise.  In 1911 Joe Hill, the famous unionist and songwriter,  parodied the ballad and the image of Casey Jones as detrimental to the worker’s movement and socialist goals and values.

The Workers on the S. P. line to strike sent out a call;
But Casey Jones, the engineer, he wouldn’t strike at all;
His boiler it was leaking, and its drivers on the bum,
And his engine and its bearings, they were all out of plumb.

Casey Jones kept his junk pile running;
Casey Jones was working double time;
Casey Jones got a wooden medal,
For being good and faithful on the S. P. line.

The workers said to Casey: “Won’t you help us win this strike?”
But Casey said: “Let me alone, you’d better take a hike.”
Then some one put a bunch of railroad ties across the track,
And Casey hit the river bottom with an awful crack.

from “Casey Jones the Union Scab” by Joe Hill

In the 1960’s the musical group the Grateful Dead again reinvented Jones as a new adventurer, this time of inner space instead of the American landscape.  His risk-taking and adventurous spirit was then  for using cocaine, not engineering trains, but his demise is just as assured. (I’m not sure but this might be the origin of the expression “to jones for” in reference to craving for a drug).

Driving that train, high on cocaine
Casey Jones you’d better watch your speed
Trouble ahead, trouble behind
And you know that notion just crossed my mind

This old engine makes it on time
Leaves Central Station ’bout a quarter to nine
Hits River Junction at seventeen to
At a quarter to ten you know it’s travelling again

Trouble ahead, the lady in red
Take my advice you’d be better off dead
Switchman’s sleeping, train Hundred and Two
Is on the wrong track and headed for you

Trouble with you is the trouble with me
Got two good eyes but we still don’t see
Come round the bend, you know it’s the end
The fireman screams and the engine just gleams

“Casey Jones”,  by The Grateful Dead

The Image of  Casey Jones 

If Casey has morphed through music, he has shown even more dramatic changes in his visual portrayals.


Portrait of Casey Jones

As can be seen from the portrait, Casey was a dark-featured man, but in art he is most often depicted with blond hair and blue eyes. From the figurines below he could be mistaken for a little Dutch boy-cherub.

I can only imagine that the reason for this is that in early 20th century America the prevailing sentiment was anti-immigrant, and therefore any homespun hero, particularly one exemplifying the hardworking middle classes, would have to be “whitened up”.


Casey Jones


One response to “Casey Jones: Middle Class Hero

  1. thanks for the help


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