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Out Of The Depot

Newspaper Reports Begin Rise Of Legend

 By J. K. Gurner

In the days immediately following the wreck at Vaughan that killed Casey Jones on April 30, 1900, reports of the collision appeared in newspapers around the region. The Memphis Commercial Appeal headlined the story, “Dead Under His Cab” and provides some additional details that add to the story, if they are true. A bit of embellishment was pretty much standard for newspapers at the beginning of the 20th Century.

According to the story, engineer Jones was killed outright by the concussion. “His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and the right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous.”

The writer added that the other employees and all of the passengers were more or less jostled by the shock, some of them receiving bruises and slight wounds, none of which, however, were serious.

The newspaper identified the train as the New Orleans fast mail, which was close to the actual name, the New Orleans Express. The writer cited a lack of switching facilities at Vaughan as an indirect cause of the crash. “Four long freight trains had gotten there and the siding was not sufficient to accommodate them.”

It wasn’t unusual for small stations to have passing tracks size that required the trainmen to use the “sawby” procedure. Jones would have been expecting that and everything would have worked if one of the trains had not broken an air hose causing a portion to be left on the main line. But, Jones made an assumption that the switch was clear and wasn’t prepared to stop.

The story answered one question about the unusual number of trains gathered at Vaughan. The newspaper noted that “traffic on the road has been unusually heavy since the recent floods and the delay in freight transportation has caused much inconvenience.”

Probably the most interesting piece came from the Times-Democrat of New Orleans, which headlined their story “Heroic Engineer – Sticks to his post at cost of life.”

The writer, Adam Hauser, claimed that engineer J. L. Jones loyalty to duty prevented terrible fatalities. Hauser was a former member of the newspaper telegraph staff and was in a sleeper on the train. He wrote: “The passengers did not suffer, and there was no panic.”

He indirectly quoted the mail clerk as saying he heard the detonation of the three torpedoes, which are explosive devices placed on the track as a warning of immediate danger. When run over by a train, they make a loud enough noise to be heard in the noisy engine.

“He may have believed it to be his duty to stick to his post,” Hauser wrote, “perhaps it was that he hoped to avert the threatened wreck. Certain it was that he tried to do this, and the trial cost him his life. He had scant time, though, in which to give himself over to thinking, for there was much to do–there was steam to be shut off, the reverse to be applied, the throttle to be reopened, and the ‘air’ to be put on-and the time was pitiably brief.”

“The mystery was that the passengers, in coaches and sleepers, were disturbed so little and hurt not at all. If the speed of the train after the torpedoes went off was accurately judged by the mail clerk, of course Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as an heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life” Hauser added.

But, the writer’s most interesting and prophetic comment was: “I imagine that the Vaughan wreck will be talked about in roundhouses, lunchrooms and cabooses for the next six months, not alone on the Illinois Central, but many other roads in Mississippi and Louisi-ana.”

What he didn’t know was that the wreck would still be talked about more than a century later all over the world  and would make Water Valley district engineer John Luther “Casey” Jones the most famous railroader in American history.

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