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Out Of The Depot

Casey’s Ride Into History Celebrated Apr. 30

By J. K. Gurner

The 115th anniversary of the Casey Jones wreck at Vaughan is just a week away. That wreck, so many years ago, has a lot to do with why we have the museum here in Water Valley today. John Luther “Casey” Jones was a Water Valley district engineer when he went to Memphis to run one of the fast passenger trains between there and Canton.

On the evening of April 29, 1900, Casey Jones and his fireman, Sim Webb, had rolled into Memphis from their round trip run to Canton on the 384. That was the engine Jones inherited from William Hatfield, who had returned to Water Valley. Jones bid on Hatfield’s run and was given charge of the 384 in January of 1900. So, the 384 was actually Casey’s engine and not the 382 as previously thought.

Jones would have normally gone home and gotten some rest before going out on his regular run south to Canton, probably the next day. But, engineer Sam Tate was ill and Jones was asked to “double back” on Tate’s run, which was already late leaving Memphis.

There wouldn’t have been time to switch Tate’s engine, the 382,  for Casey’s, so Casey and fireman Webb left Memphis at 12:50 on the morning of April 30, 1900, headed south on the Illinois Central’s No. 1 train, the New Orleans Express. There were six cars making it a light train, the perfect setup for a record run for a fast mover like Casey.

The departure would have been an hour and 35 minutes late, according to the schedule. But, Casey had already made up some of the time when he made a water stop at Sardis, 50 miles into his run. By the time he reached Grenada, 100 miles out, he was only about 40 minutes late. He was moving fast. At times he was making the same speed as the fast diesel passenger trains of much later years. But, as many railroaders have said over the years, “They don’t pay a dime more for a fast run than they do a good one.”

Jones had to get off the main line and take siding at Goodman for northbound train No. 2. When he headed out of the passing track, he was only about five minutes late. But, he knew that there must be congestion ahead because several freight trains that he should have passed were not accounted for.

As he passed Pickens almost on time, there were no trains in the passing track. That meant they all must be at Vaughan, six miles ahead. As he rolled south, the stage was being set for his tragic wreck. Southbound freight No. 83 had arrived at Vaughan and, while pulling into the passing track, had pulled out two drawbars.

To make matters worse, northbound freight No. 72, also in the passing track, had an air hose break and couldn’t move. That left the caboose and several cars from freight No. 83 on the main line at the north switch.

Casey had orders to perform a “saw by” maneuver at Vaughan, so he was expecting the north switch to be clear. He would have normally stopped while the two freight trains moved to clear the south switch, allowing him to proceed.

But, as Casey approached Vaughan, the lights on the back of the caboose of No. 83 could be seen on the main line and he would have applied the brakes. But, it was too late and the 382 would have still been moving about 35 miles an hour when it hit the caboose.

A piece of metal or wood came through the window of the engine and struck Casey in the throat. A stretcher was taken from the baggage car and crewmen from the other trains carried him the one-half mile to the depot. There, lying on a baggage wagon, Casey died.

What went wrong? It’s hard to say. The railroad’s formal investigation concluded that “Engineer Jones was solely responsible for the accident as consequence of not having properly responded to flag signals.” But many of Casey’s friends were not satisfied by that explanation. They believed he was “short flagged” by John Newberry, whose responsibility it would have been to warn Casey of the problems ahead.

Why didn`t Casey jump? Railroad historian Bruce Gurner wrote in “Casey Jones and the Wreck at Vaughan” that once the engineer puts the brake in emergency, reverses the engine and opens the sanders (devices that dump sand on the track for traction), the engine had no further need of his services. It is up to air and steel to stop the train.

“You would just have to understand how Casey loved his job, his engine and the railroad to understand why he did not jump,” Bruce wrote. “There might be one chance in a million that he could do something else. He wanted to be there to do it.”


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