This is the day, 113 years ago to be exact, the hat and gloves of Mr. Casey Jones were buried in the Virgin Ninnetta’s sideyard and I have actually walked with her and looked at the exact spot where the relics were buried in tiny Vaughan, Miss. That’s where my dad was raised, on a plantation a couple of miles this side of town, and the Virgin Ninetta was one of his cousins.
I remember travelling to Mississippi as a baby in the summers when Dad would take us to visit his aunts. My grandfather on his side I never knew but he was quite a fellow. He was actually an Army officer who took part in the Treaty of Versailles (the German surrender of World War I) and was a colorful character until he imbibed a little too much with his buddies at a famed Mississippi deer camp and froze to death early one morning while awaiting his prey.
So my aunts raised my dad and one of the spinsters was the Virgin Ninetta. Now the way they talked in the Deep South back then, all it meant was that Ninetta had never married and everybody knew her, quite respectfully, as … well, just who she was. The house where dad grew up had no plumbing in the years I visited, water coming from the cistern and a “chamber pot” with a lid in every bedroom.
You’d wash with a pitcher and basin and, believe it or not, it was more fun than going camping. The driveway to the Big House was over a mile and a boy with dogs and a 22-rifle couldn’t get in trouble. Again, Vaughan was several miles away but I can remember never passing the Virgin Ninetta’s house without knowing Casey Jones’ hat and gloves were somewhere close to the primrose bushes.
Casey Jones, for whom the famed ballad was written, was indeed a real guy and on the night of April 29, 1900, he pulled out of Memphis pulling six passenger cars behind his steam locomotive on the way to Canton in central Mississippi. He was one hour and 35 minutes late so Casey told his fireman, a huge black guy named Simeon T. Webb, to go heavy on the coal.
By the time the No. 1 train got to Grenada, where they stopped to get water to make the steam, Casey had made up 55 minutes and he yelled, “Sim, this old girl’s got her dancing shoes on tonight!” and, with one hand on the whistle and the other on the throttle, he leaned just so on the Johnson bar and the “Cannonball Express” screamed through the night. (A Johnson bar is like a gear shift): “Hey Porter, tell that engineer, tell him this train's too slow. Tell him to let go that Johnson bar. I got places I got to go.”
It’s always been said that Jonathan Luther Jones was the best engineer that ever was. His nickname, “Casey” was well-earned after he saved a girl from getting hit by a train in Cayce, Ky., and while he spelled it different, he was also so gifted at blowing the whistle, starting slow, rising, and then letting the shrill noise trail, the folks all up and down the Water Valley line would say, “There goes Casey Jones.”
By the time “Ole 382,” a ten-wheel engine with six huge driving wheels (three on each side over six feet tall) hit the town limit of Durant, Casey had made up all the time lost before leaving Memphis. There were no speed-restrictive curves on the 30 miles of track out of Winona and while there was rain and fog, those were ideal conditions for a steam-driven rig -- Casey was running about 75 miles an hour with the boiler full.
Trouble was, the station in Vaughan was a mess. There were three trains stopped there, one with a busted airline that couldn’t be moved. With no way to contact him, Casey laid down on both the whistle and throttle as “Ole 382” scrambled through 1.5 miles of left-hand curve coming into town, and suddenly the fireman saw the red light of a caboose directly – and closely – in the way.
"Oh my Lord, there's something on the main line!" he yelled to Casey and the engineer yelled back, “Jump Sim, jump!" to Webb, who quickly jumped and was knocked out as he hit the ground. Before he hit, he distinctly remembered Casey opening the whistle full, trying to warm anybody of the impending doom. (The railroad paid Sim $5.00 for his bruises.)
According to Wikipedia, “Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but "Ole 382" quickly plowed through a wooden caboose, a car load of hay, another of corn and half way through a car of timber before leaving the track. Casey had amazingly reduced his speed from about 75 miles per hour to about 35 miles per hour when he impacted with a deafening crunch of steel against steel and splintering wood.
“Because Jones stayed on board to slow the train, he no doubt saved the passengers from serious injury and death (Jones himself was the only fatality of the collision). His watch stopped at the time of impact: 3:52 AM on April 30, 1900.”
Wikipedia also reported that Adam Hauser, formerly a member of The (New Orleans) Times-Democrat telegraph staff, was in a sleeper on Jones' southbound fast mail and made these (excerpted) comments after the wreck:
"The passengers did not suffer, and there was no panic. I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still. Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life."
"The marvel and mystery is how Engineer Jones stopped that train. The railroad men themselves wondered at it and of course the uninitiated could not do less. But stop it he did, in a way that showed his complete mastery of his engine, as well as his sublime heroism. 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 Louisiana.”
Yeah, and two days after the wreck – as Casey’s body was being buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Jackson, Tenn. – his hat and gloves were buried at the Virgin Ninetta’s near the primrose bushes, the nicest place they could find near the site of the wreck.
In later years Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead would be among the many artists who performed, “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” a song written by his friend and engine-wiper Wallace Saunders. Wallace, a black man who idolized Casey, was given a bottle of gin for the song rights. Poet Carl Sandburg called the song “the greatest ballad ever written” and once, long ago, I knew the words by heart.