By J. K. Gurner
In just a few days we observe the 114th anniversary of the Casey Jones wreck at Vaughan, Miss. So, it is appropriate to retell the story of the accident that took the life of the most famous engineer in railroad history.
Casey was working out of Memphis at the time, but he was still a Water Valley district engineer in the Mississippi Division of the Illinois Central Railroad.
Bruce Gurner published his account of the accident in 1972 based on Brotherhood lodge records, official I.C. Railroad records, interviews and his own years of experience as a fireman and engineer.
Bruce wrote that on the night of April 29, 1900, Casey and engine 382 with Sim Webb firing were listed out of Memphis on train #1 with six cars southbound for Canton. Conductor was J. C. Turner. The scheduled departure time was 11:15. Records indicate he left at 12:50; one hour and thirty-five minutes late.
A good engine, a good fireman, a light train and away late; the perfect setting for a record run. He made that record run too, if the oft-quoted departure time of 12:50 is correct, for Casey went to Goodman on time for a meet with #2.
While Casey was rolling south, the stage was being set for his tragic wreck. Freights #72 and #83 were both in the passing track at Vaughan and there were more cars than the track would hold. It was necessary for these trains to move north or south to clear the main line switches in order to allow other trains to pass; this is known as a saw- by.
Meanwhile, northbound local passenger #26 arrived from Canton and had to be sawed in on the house track west of the main line. As #83 and #72 sawed back south to clear the north passing track switch, an air house broke on #72 and he couldn’t move. Several cars of #83’s train were still out on the main line above the north switch.
Engine 382 crashed through the caboose and several cars and came to rest on the right side pointing back north. Casey was fatally wounded in the throat. He was carried one-half mile to the depot were he died lying on a baggage wagon.
The railroad’s formal investigation concluded, “Engineer Jones was solely responsible for the accident as consequence of not having properly responded to flag signals.”
The wreck wasn’t of much significance at the time. In that same year, over 300 enginemen were killed on single-track railroads around the country. So, what was it that made this wreck so famous? It was the song, supposedly written by an engine wiper (maintenance man) Wallace Saunders, who worked in the railroad shop at Canton. Bruce said creating simple ballads about people and events seems to have been his talent.
Saunders knew Casey Jones and composed a ballad that, Bruce assumed, he played and sang in Canton. The fact that some liberties were taken with the story had no effect on the song’s popularity.
“It was an instant success,” Bruce said, “and was soon being whistled and sung up and down the Illinois Central.”
Illinois Central Engineer William Leighton heard the song and made it known to his brothers, Frank and Bert, who were vaudeville performers. They sang it in theaters around the country, adding a chorus.
T. Lawrence Seibert was credited with the words and Eddie Newton the music when it was published and offered for sale in 1909. By World War I dozens of versions had been published and millions of copies sold creating a new American folk hero.
Casey was a legend. The song made him that, but ironically neither his wife, Janie, nor any member of his family ever received a cent from the proceeds of the song.
Neither did Wallace Saunders.