June 20, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

Casey Jones 150th Birthday Celebration

3 min read
Casey Jones 150th Birthday Celebration

Yesterday was the 150th birthday celebration for Jonathan Luther “Casey” Jones. You know me, I had to go by and visit. I am always up for a good historical field trip, and the festivities in Jackson, Tennessee, were just down the road. I borrowed my wife’s Honda Civic (which gets awesome gas mileage), turned on a lecture from The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and headed north.

I didn’t want to study and analyze every article online before I went up to the museum, otherwise there would be nothing new for me to learn; however, I did want to briefly refresh. In doing so, I thought back to my first encounter of Casey Jones.

My earliest memory of Casey Jones came from Disney’s Casey Jones, the Brave Engineer. I remember watching this as a kid and thinking that Casey Jones was a bad-ass. (It’s no wonder that the Grateful Dead had their own Rock N’ Roll version of Casey Jones.) While this short, animated story shows Casey’s ambition to never be late, the ending is rather disappointing. It paints Casey Jones as a man who overcomes all obstacles (including scooping a girl off the tracks while riding the cow-catcher of his moving train–yes, it really happened), and still coming out a winner at the end. Disney’s version shows Casey Jones surviving the train wreck and delivering the mail (somewhat) promptly.


As we know, this just is not correct. Casey Jones did, in fact, have a horrific train wreck, but dying in this wreck is what made him a legend. Traveling at a high pace, Casey Jones had made up for the train’s late departure and lost time. (This lost time was no fault of his own.) As Casey Jones was coming into his station, there was a passenger train that had stalled on the main track. Traveling at a rate of 75 mph, Casey could not stop his train before it collided with the passenger train; however, he did manage to slow it significantly. Because Casey Jones sacrificed his life and stayed on board to slow the train, he no doubt saved the passengers from serious injury and death. Casey, the only fatality from this horrific event, was found with his hands still clutched the train’s whistle cord and brake.


Now that I have cleared that up (thanks Walt Disney!), back to the celebration.

I had never been to the Casey Jones museum before. (I don’t think…my parents might correct me later. I certainly don’t remember ever going.) The museum was full of Casey Jones material, ranging from childhood to his death; Illinois Central railroad history, some with and some without Casey Jones; history about the founding of the museum; and of course no southern museum is complete without a section dedicated to the American Civil War. While each aspect was fascinating, the part that I thought was most interesting was his name. I had always assumed that Casey Jones’ name was Casey Jones. The story of how he got his nickname is simple, yet significant to Jackson, Tennessee’s, long-lasting impression on Casey Jones.

How Casey Jones got His Name

Unfortunately, I did not make it to the museum at 10:00 am when the majority of the special activities occurred. From what I understand though, there was cake and Casey Jones’ grandchildren were present. I did get to hear some live music while I was there. If you are into folksy, southern-banjo music, you can check out the clip I uploaded on Youtube.

I was glad to have the opportunity to go see this museum (for free), but I would have been disappointed if I had driven more than an hour’s drive. With the fliers and brouhaha in the newspapers, I was expecting a little more excitement. I took a few pictures if you want to check out the gallery.

5 thoughts on “Casey Jones 150th Birthday Celebration

  1. Interesting piece. The story of John Luther “Casey” Jones is a fascinating one. He was a well respected man in his time. His peers selected him to be master of the lodge (The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers). Did the wreck make him famous? No. It was just one of hundreds in that year. It was actually unremarkable. What made him famous was the song. Was he a hero? Interesting question. Who was responsible for the wreck? Casey was. He was going way to fast in violation of the railroad’s rules. Casey’s job that night was to get his train from Memphis to Canton in the usual amount of time. It was his idea to attempt to make up the time. The people who knew him believed he was looking for the bragging rights for making the fastest run. And, he did. He was on time when he got to Goodman, the last station before Vaughn.

    None of the above makes his story any less interesting. Visit us in Mississippi at the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum.

    1. No arguments here! Just because he managed not to kill anyone else, due to his own hi-jinxs, shouldn’t make him a hero. That being said, he could have bailed with Sim…

  2. The line attributed to Casey: “Jump Sim, Jump!” came from Sim Webb and it is believed that he said that to justify his leaving the train. Jones would have made every attempt to stop the “Cannonball” (there was never a Cannonball, but that’s another story) because he knew that if he hit the back of 83 he would be so fired. And, it would have been better to have slowed the train and taken the hit, than to jump off into the pitch black night not knowing what you would land on. If he had ducked down, he would have missed the piece of wood that came through the window and would have lived…and probably found other employment. Jones would have been too busy that night to have worried about Sim. Imagine an airline pilot turning to his copilot as they head for the ground and saying, “Golly, why don’t you head to the back of the plane while I try to pull us out of this pickle.” I suspect if there had been a flight recorder-like device, Jones would have been heard to say the same two words every pilot says right before impact.

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