January 18, 2022

#08-179: Casey Jones, the Railway Engineer

A postcard from the hometown of the real Casey Jones

Note: It rarely happens that a folk tale turns out to be almost entirely true! But that's exactly what happened with the story of the railroad engineer Casey Jones.

Get Ready: Do you have any heroes? Are they real or legendary--or both?

We have met several legendary "Big Men": Paul Bunyan the Lumber Jack, Pecos Bill the Cowboy, and so on. But one such story is as much fact as fiction: Casey Jones, the Railway Engineer.

"The Ballad of Casey Jones" tells how Jones learned that another engineer couldn't come to work, so Casey would have to do a double shift. He agreed, if African-American Sim Webb, his regular "fireman," could also work with him. So he "Started on his farewell Journey to the promised land," as the ballad says.

They started out behind schedule, so Jones asked Webb to stoke the boiler as hot as possible, to allow for more speed. It was a rainy night, but they had gained time and were only two minutes late when up ahead they saw a freight train sitting on the track!

Slowing as much as he could, Jones told Sim to jump. But he "died at the throttle/With the whistle in his hand," leaving behind a wife and three children.

Surprisingly, the "ballad" is almost entirely accurate. John Luther "Casey" Jones (1863-1900) was a real locomotive engineer, and he really did die in circumstances as described in the song, which even mentions the time of the crash--"At 3:52 that morning came the fateful end"--a time which is known because his watch stopped at the time of impact.

They were nearly on schedule at the time of the crash. At one point he said of the engine, "Sim, the old girl's got her dancing slippers on tonight!" But as Jones was approaching a station at about 75 miles (121 kilometers) per hour, they saw the trains sitting on the track, and Jones told Webb to jump. He did, and flew 300 feet (91 meters) before being knocked unconscious.

Jones reversed the throttle and slammed on the brakes, slowing to only 40 miles (64 kilometers) per hour at the moment of impact. He was killed instantly, but there were no other serious injuries--all the more amazing because he was operating a passenger train!

The song was first sung and whistled by Wallace Saunders, a friend of Jones, as he cleaned engines. Other railroad men heard it and repeated it, until one shared it with his brother, a vaudeville performer. It was sung in theaters around the country until it was copyrighted, published, and sold starting in 1909.

Casey Jones has been an American folk legend ever since.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casey_Jones

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. boiler
  2. copyrighted
  3. freight
  4. instantly
  5. locomotive
  6. reversed
  7. slammed
  8. stoke
  9. throttle
  10. vaudeville

  1. right away
  2. a train engine
  3. legally protected from being sold by others
  4. live theater
  5. hit hard
  6. a device for heating water
  7. feed coal into
  8. went backward
  9. goods; cargo
  10. an engine's speed control

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 13, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. c; 3. i; 4. a; 5. b; 6. h; 7. e; 8. g; 9. j; 10. d