Kentucky by Heart: Legendary railroad engineer “Casey” Jones spent much of his childhood in Western Kentucky.

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune Columnist

John Luther “Casey” Jones was a boy raised in Kentucky who grew to achieve a beloved stature as a railroad engineer, known throughout America. But that broad success came after his tragic – albeit heroic – death by a train wreck in Mississippi.

Casey Jones (Photo courtesy of Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum)

Jones’ life and story reached dramatic heights when in 1909 two vaudevillians, Eddie Newton and T. Lawrence Seibert, published the first copyrighted version of “The Ballad of Casey Jones” as their names. Previously, Wallace Saunders, an illiterate windshield wiper in Canton, Mississippi, composed the song about Casey and sang it while he worked, and others also covered it.

Casey, according to most sources I’ve read (besides being noted by his wife), was probably born in southeastern Missouri in 1863 (the date according to the Bible of Casey’s mother’s family ). It is known, however, that as a child he moved with his parents in 1876 to the small community of Cayce, Kentucky in the western part of the state. Laura Beaver, director of the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, in Jackson, Tennessee, explained how he got his new name. She said, “The nickname ‘Casey’ was given to Jones by other railroad workers because when they asked where he was from, Jones replied ‘Cayce, Kentucky’.”

As an adult, Casey lived in a boarding house in Jackson, Tennessee, and he fell in love with the owners’ daughter. After his marriage to Janie Brady, the two resided in Jackson, and he is generally accorded the terms “family man and sober”.

A replica of the 382 engine (Photo courtesy of Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum)

He worked as a brakeman for Mobile & Ohio Railroad on the route from Columbus, Kentucky, to Jackson, Tennessee, then as a firefighter on the route from Jackson to Mobile, Alabama. In 1891, Casey Jones achieved his life’s goal by becoming a locomotive engineer on the Illinois Central Railroad.

Although the event is not as well known as that of her death, she has been credited with saving the life of a little girl in 1895, five years before her heroism in the same condition that cost her death. life.

Beaver shared the story of the child’s rescue.

“When Casey and Bob Stephenson were coming to Michigan City, Mississippi, Casey got out on the running board to oil the wastegates and then on the pilot beam to adjust the spark arrester,” she said. “A group of children were playing among carriages on a nearby siding when the group, following a small girl, crossed the tracks in front of Casey’s train. When she froze on the rails, Casey bent down and lifted her off the rails.

Casey was known and respected by railroad men as “an entertainer with the engine,” said author Billy Reed quoted in his book, Famous Kentuckians. Reed added: “Famous for his heavy hand on the accelerator, Casey has also built a fine safety record. Until the night of his death, he was never involved in an accident in which anyone was killed or seriously injured.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, speaker, and author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a children’s version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly columnist for NKyTribune, and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at [email protected] or visit his Facebook page,”Kentucky in Common: Sketch of Words in Tribute.” (Photo of Steve by Connie McDonald)

And then the fateful day of April 30, 1900 arrived and it would enshrine Casey in American history. That day he pulled out locomotive No. 382 from Memphis at 12:50 a.m., one hour and thirty-five minutes late. He would hit speeds of 100 mph to make up time, and by the time he reached Grenada, Mississippi, he had made up sixty minutes. As time went on, he gained more time and was only fifteen minutes behind when he passed through Winona, Mississippi.

When Casey’s locomotive approached Vaughan, Mississippi, there were problems. A train was stuck on the track and when men tried to move it an air hose gave way and froze the wheels. Although Casey was able to decelerate No. 382 from seventy-five miles per hour to thirty-five, a collision in the caboose of the disabled train occurred. The firefighter jumped ahead, but Casey remained in the cabin and died in the collision – the only fatality.

It appears Casey Jones’ actions saved the lives of others in the cars. Billy Reed explained that when rescuers got to Casey, “they found his hands locked in a deadly grip on the brake and throttle.”

As mentioned earlier, the influence of the ballad of Casey Jones helped bring him an iconic legacy, and over time movies and television programs have made his life. Unfortunately, part of the ballad involved Casey’s wife having had an affair with another railroad worker.

The director of the Beaver Museum insists this is untrue and that Casey’s wife fought this story from the start. Beaver said of the writers, “They added what would appeal to audiences…it was in a loud era, featured in places where people were drinking.” In other words, the mention of the affair was a lie, and for very selfish reasons.

Casey Jones is buried in Jackson. You can learn more about his incredible life by visiting the Casey Jones House and Railroad Museum Facebook Page or by emailing [email protected]

Sources: Famous Kentuckians (book), by Billy Reed (Courier-Journal, 1977);; The Death of Casey Jones: 120 Years Later (; Casey Jones (2001 children’s book), by Allan Drummond;; telephone interview with Laura Beaver at the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum, Jackson, TN;

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