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Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Legend of Casey Jones

When you head to Chattanooga from Memphis by the northern route through Nashville, you also pass through Jackson, TN not far from here. Among other things, Jackson is known as the home of the Casey Jones home and museum. I’m sure you all know the story of locomotive engineer Casey Jones who rode his engine’s brake all the way into a crash that killed him, but sufficiently slowed his passenger train so that his was the only fatality.

As we drove, Mike recalled his own link to the Casey Jones legend. When he was a young Cub Scout, an elderly, silver-haired Black man was introduced to the troop as their speaker for the day. His name was Sim Webb, and he had been the fireman with Casey Jones on that fateful day. Mike and his friends knew the story and probably the song, but he was astonished that Webb was standing there in front of him. A kid’s sense of history and time are a bit vague, and Mike presumed that the famous crash had taken place in the olden days. But here was Sim Webb.

Webb was born in 1874 in McComb, MS. He was the son of John Webb who worked for the railroad for 48 years. He sent his son down to New Orleans to go to school and learn a trade, but Sim had railroad fever in his blood and quickly went to work at the railroad yards.

John Luther “Casey” Jones, born 1864, was from Cayce, Ky., the origin of his nickname and where he was employed as a telegraph operator. In 1888 he went to work for the Illinois Central RR as a locomotive fireman and two years later was promoted to engineer. Jones was famous among railroad men for his boast that he always brought in his train on schedule and for his skill with a locomotive whistle that made it sound like a whippoorwill. Jones, his wife and three children lived in Jackson at the time of his heroic last run.

(fyi – A fireman is the person who shovels coal into the boiler that powers the engine and provides the speed.)

In January 1900, Casey and Sim were transferred to Memphis and began working together for the first time. Until then, Casey had driven freight trains rather than passengers.

Here are the words of Mr. Webb describing the last run of Casey Jones in April 1900:

We had finished our regular run into Memphis, but we took over the Cannonball because its regular engineer was ill. Casey got permission to use his same engine, No. 382. We were about an hour and a half late and Mr. Casey was mighty tired. When we began to make up time with old 382, Casey turned to me, smiling, and said, “Sim, she’s got her dancing slippers on tonight.”

We had been having rainy, foggy weather for two weeks, and the clouds were mighty dark and low that night. But Mr. Casey's spirits were high. He seemed to be in an extra good mood. As we pulled out of Central Station (in Memphis) he opened her up.

"We're going to have a pretty tough time going into Canton on time,” he said, “but I believe we can do it, barring accidents.” And I replied: “You can depend on me, Mr. Casey. I'll sure keep her hot.”
By the time we got near Vaughan, we were only a few minutes late approaching the S-curve north of the station.

As we rounded the bend, we both saw the freight train on the passing track with a few cars sticking out on the main line. (Another version of the story says that Webb, from the fireman’s position and being in the curve, saw the other train first and yelled to Casey. Jones laid on the brake and the whistle simultaneously.)

The last words Casey said were, “Jump, Sim, jump.” I obeyed him and piled out of the cab. They found Casey with one hand still clutching the throttle and the other the air-brake control. Casey was the only one killed.

(Due to the force of the collision, it’s unlikely that Jones’ hands were still in place – but that’s the stuff that legends are made of.)

Sim Webb lived 57 years after the April 30, 1900 collision of Casey Jones’ Cannonball. For a while, he went back to work on the railroad and even lived through another wreck where an engine overturned on him. He survived when an artesian well caved in beneath him allowing only an injury to his foot on one side and his leg on another.

He became somewhat of a celebrity due to the Cannonball crash and received many requests for appearances – including the one from Mike’s Cub Scout troop.
Mr. Webb died in Memphis in 1957. Hear Johnny Cash sing The Ballad of Casey Jones at


lacy said...

That was so nice to read. My dad would tell me about Casey Jones. His dad worked for Illinois Central Railroad out of Memphis and MS. My dad was born in Grenada.

Scarlett said...

There's so much history in this region that's more than textbook. It's been a part of our lives or our families. We enjoy sharing those stories.