Casey Jones was a locomotive engineer who became a folk hero after his death in a train crash in 1900 was commemorated in a number of songs. According to legend, Jones died with one hand on the train’s whistle and the other hand on its brake.
Born John Luther Jones in Missouri in 1863, the future folk hero moved with his family as a boy to Cayce, Kentucky, the town from which he got his nickname. As a teenager, he began working for the railroads and later moved to Jackson, Tennessee. On April 29, 1900, Jones, then an engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, arrived in Memphis, Tennessee, having driven a train there from Canton, Mississippi. In Memphis, he found out the engineer scheduled to make the return run that night was sick, so Jones volunteered to take his place. When he pulled out of the Memphis station in the early hours of April 30, the train was running late so he hurried to make up for lost time. As the train rounded a curve near Vaughan, Mississippi, it collided with another train on the tracks, but not before Jones told his fireman to jump to safety. Jones remained on board, supposedly to try to slow the train and save his passengers, and was the only person to die in the accident.
Following Jones’s death, Wallace Saunders, an African-American railroad worker in Mississippi, developed a ballad about the fallen engineer that became popular with other men in the railroad yards. From there, a version of tune was performed on the vaudeville circuit. In 1909, a pair of song writers published “Casey Jones,” based in part on the earlier melodies; it went on to become a hit for various recording artists. The songs helped turn Jones into a folk hero and his story later was dramatized on radio and TV. In the 1950s, his house in Jackson became a museum.