Every schoolchild has heard the story of the death of the train engineer Casey Jones. Late one night in 1900, after completing his usual run, he was asked to take over another passenger train whose engineer had taken ill. After starting the journey more than an hour and a half late, he raced down the track at top speed, and after three hours he had just about made up all the lost time. Suddenly, as the train rounded a curve, his fireman, Sim Webb, spotted another train stuck on the tracks ahead. Jones told Webb to jump from the train, to save himself from the imminent collision, but Jones himself remained on board, applying the brakes and reversing the engine to try to slow the hurtling train. He managed to reduce speed from eighty miles per hour to about thirty-five before the crash, enough to save all of his passengers from death – but Jones himself died shortly after being pulled from the wrecked locomotive.
It’s a memorable story of an American hero who sacrificed his own life – refusing to jump from the cab as he had told Webb to – to save those entrusted to his care. But while his heroism makes Jones worthy of remembrance, it doesn’t explain why his story is still told, more than a century after it happened. After all, heroes die saving others every year – firefighters, police officers, soldiers, other train engineers, pilots, even ordinary laypeople – and most of them are not long remembered by the public. Why did Casey Jones become legendary?
The simple answer is: because someone wrote a song about him. “The Ballad of Casey Jones” tells the story of that fateful crash, and after being passed along for years among railroadmen, it was recorded by artists like Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash. That song, more than anything else, explains Jones’s ongoing fame.
By all accounts, Jones was an enthusiastic, ambitious, and talented railroader. He had been interested in trains since he was a teenager, and he had worked his way through the ranks, from telegrapher at age 15, to flagman by the age of 20, then to brakeman, fireman, and finally, in 1891 at age 27, to engineer. At every step along his path, he worked hard to learn everything he could about the work, and he planned his career thoughtfully, taking on jobs that would expose him to information and to opportunity. He recognized the value of exceeding expectations, and became known as an engineer who nearly always brought his trains in on schedule, even if they had been delayed to begin with.
Jones’s ambitious goals for himself were matched by his good-natured generosity towards others. He was a popular worker who shared his know-how easily and who treated all his co-workers with respect. He pitched in when others needed help and made friends with many of the people he worked regularly with. Once such man was Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper who had met Jones a few years before the accident.
When Jones died, the spectacular crash was reported in the newspapers of the time – but so were many other similar accidents. It was the heyday of the railroads, and collisions and derailments were not uncommon. In the eye of the public, there was little to distinguish Jones’s death from that of many other engineers and trainmen.
But in the eyes of his fellow railroaders, Jones’s death was especially painful. They knew that they had lost an exceptionally talented and driven comrade whose warmth and spirit had touched many of them. Fifteen engineers – a previously unheard-of number – rode more than 100 miles each to attend Jones’s funeral. And Wallace Saunders was so moved by Jones’s death that he undertook to write about his heroic last acts, saving both his fireman and his passengers, in song. He wrote “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” and it was passed among those who had known Jones, and beyond, until it and Jones’s story had become staples of American folklore.
Casey Jones pursued a career he loved with an open-hearted passion that elevated the people he worked with. He excelled while helping other people excel. Jones is not a legend because of how he died. He is a legend because of how he lived.