American Railroad Legend – Tiny Cayce
By Corey Ramsey
Folks knew him by his whistle. In the night, down in the dripping, drooping humidity of 1890s Mississippi, folks in bed, tossing in the heat, could hear what sounded like a whippoorwill. It was a whistle that began softly. Then it drawled out long and loud before fading off in a whisper. Only one man at the helm of a particular steam locomotive had that trademark in the middle of the full Mississippi moon. It was that train engineer out of Jackson, Tennessee, keeping his Illinois Central piece on time. John Luther Jones, who was so noted for punctuality that it cost him his life a few years later. The world, in song, books, museums, monuments, and media would know him as Casey Jones. John Luther “Casey” Jones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900)
He was born in Missouri but brought up in Kentucky down in the far western part of the state in Fulton County, at a spot on the tracks called Cayce. Several lines ran through the county at that time. The county seat at Hickman had the Nashville, Chattanooga, & St. Louis Railroad. Fulton at the other end had Illinois Central. In the center of the county from the state border at Jordan on up to Moscow ran the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. That line also ran through little Cayce, Kentucky, and attracted the interest of several of the young men growing up there, including John Luther Jones.
As soon as he was old enough, he moved up to nearby Columbus, Kentucky, and went to work for Mobile & Ohio. First as a cub operator, then as brakeman, and later fireman. It was in Columbus that the other railroad men gave him the nickname “Casey” as a play on the place he had come from. And so, Casey Jones continued to work his way up the ranks and made it to engineer on the Illinois Central, with a route that ran from Memphis, Tennessee, to Canton, Mississippi. A fast route at that. It was known as a Cannonball passenger run, a speed service for mail and passenger travel that was the fastest of the day. So fast that veteran engineers who had seen the progress of locomotives get scary quick just up and quit. Not Casey Jones, who at 37 years old was up to the challenge of being on time in what was an age of rapid American progress.
April 30, 1900. It was foggy in Memphis at ten minutes before one in the morning. Casey and his crew and the train were all 75 minutes behind schedule before they even left the station. But they felt like the cannonball run could still be made on time. He ran the first 100 miles down to Grenada, Mississippi, at speeds of up to 80 miles an hour. By the time of the first stop, he had made up 55 minutes of the delay. In the next 25 miles down to Winona, he made up 15 more minutes. At Durant, he was dang near on time. Just like always. But there was trouble ahead at Vaughan, Mississippi. Four cars from a freight train were left stuck on the main line due to a mechanical malfunction. Right in the path of Jones, who was still traveling at 75 miles an hour to meet the scheduled arrival time. It just so happened that a left-handed curve was near the station as well. Fireman Sim Webb was the first to see caboose lights.
Webb alerted Jones, who ordered him to jump from the train. Webb leapt 300 feet from the impact, and the last thing he heard before being knocked unconscious was the whistle of Casey Jones as the brave engineer met death. Jones reversed the throttle and applied brakes as the engine plowed through several loaded train cars and derailed. His watch stopped upon impact at 3.52 a.m. He was 2 minutes behind schedule.
Legend holds that his hands were still on the whistle and the brake when rescuers pulled his body from the wreck. No one else was killed or seriously injured. Casey Jones was hailed as a hero. Later came the song, the books, the museums, the monument in Fulton County, even a TV show. He was referenced in a James Bond novel. He is likely the only train engineer ever to be featured on a postage stamp.
Tiny Cayce in rural Kentucky produced an American Railroad Legend.