Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Hats Off To You Casey Jones
Depending upon the news show I choose to watch tonight. I may be fortunate enough to come across an anchor that closes on a soft news piece that’s usually entitled “This day in history” or something to that effect.
Among the more noteworthy incidents that have echoed down through the ages is Hitler’s suicide. In exemplary gesture of Teutonic thoroughness he swallowed a cyanide tablet and then shot himself.
There is also the end of the Vietnam War. Those of us old enough to remember that scene with the helicopter leaving the rooftop of the American embassy and noting it’s place in future history books and not as the teaser for Miss Saigon the musical.
Also of note, the first presidential inauguration, the Louisiana Purchase was sealed and Willie Nelson was born.
But I want to focus on a lesser known occurance in history. I know it has little significance on the world stage but to those of us who hold a romantic notion about railroads in our hearts it bears some consideration.
Today is the day that railroad legend Casey Jones (yes he was a real guy) was killed when his train rear-ended another one that was supposed to have been moved from the main line. He was travelling approximately 75 miles per hour at the time of impact. It was a tragic demise to a living legend.
Jones had already made quite a name for himself.
Admired by his peers and having a reputation for arriving on time or “getting there on the advertised” as he would say, it was said that you could set your watch according to his arrivals. Adding to his notoriety was the fact that the whistle on his train had a unique sound that locals could identify as Casey’s.
He worked the Illinois Central mostly between Jackson and Water Valley Mississippi between 1890 and 1900. Jones was known for taking risks and had been issued citations for violating various rules on numerous occasions. He’d also been suspended a total of 145 days.
But it was a time when the penalties for being late outweighed censure for cutting a few corners here and there. He was ambitious and his drive for success, not his caution, was what gained him the admiration of his peers and perhaps a larger than life persona.
There was one incident where he was approaching a station and was out in front of the cab of the engine tending to some equipment when he noticed a group of small children playing on the tracks. One little girl had become panic stricken and froze right on the track.
Yelling to his fellow engineer to reverse the engine he ran forward to the cowcatcher on the front of the engine. He leaned forward and snatched the little girl from the tracks and imminent death.
On April 29, 1900, Jones was asked to substitute for another engineer and take a run from Memphis to Canton. With a substitute engine (the #382 not his usual #384) and a different fireman he left Memphis at 12:50am and not the scheduled time of 11:15pm. Determined to make the 188 mile trip and “arrive at the advertised” at 4:05am in Canton, Jones reached speeds as high as 80 miles per hour.
Unfortunately, just 10 miles from his final destination, while attempting to move a freight train off the main line an air hose broke locking the brakes and leaving four cars stuck out on the main track in the way of Jones’ oncoming train. Casey Jones was rounding a curve that blocked his view. His fireman, Simeon Webb, was sitting on the opposite side of the engine and spotted the red lights of the caboose in front of them.
He alerted Jones who yelled back “Jump Sim, jump!” Webb jumped clear and was rendered unconscious and although Jones was able to reduce speed from 75 to about 35 miles per hour his train went through the caboose and two and a half other cars before derailing.
His immediate reduction in speed saved the lives his passengers and crew but his refusal to jump with his fireman cost him his life. The impacted stopped his watch at the moment of impact – 3:52 AM and legend has it that when they pulled his body from the wreckage his hands were still on the brake lever and whistle.
Jones fame was fueled by newspaper articles about the heroic engineer who stayed at his post and saved his passengers at the cost of his own life.
Down through the years the legend has grown through stories and music. Songs written about Casey Jones have been composed by Josh Ritter, Kris Kristofferson, Motorhead, AC/DC and the Grateful Dead, just to name a few.
Disney has made references in movies and cartoons and there was even a television series loosely based on his life. So as insignificant as it may be to those of you who are not rail fans, today is a bit more than a foot note in in history for those of us who follow such things and think of men like Casey Jones when we’re waiting at the cross gates or riding the Metrolink to work.