March 14, 1863 - Today is the birthday of John Luther Jones, or as history remembers him, Casey Jones.
When he was a boy, John spent a lot of his time hanging around the train depot in Cayce, Kentucky. He grew up to be 6' 4" with a strong build, and he easily found work in the physically demanding world of railroads. At age 21 he moved to Jackson, Tennessee to work as a flagman for Mobile and Ohio Railroad.
One night around the dinner table in his boarding house, he received his legendary nickname: "What's your name, son?" "John Luther Jones." "Where are you from?" "Cayce, Kentucky." "Well, sit right down Cayce, and make yourself at home!"
With his strong work ethic Casey Jones quickly rose through the ranks, going from flagman, to brakeman, to fireman and eventually getting his dream job as engineer in 1891. He prided himself on being punctual, and apparently he was so reliable that people along his route set their watches by his distinctive train whistle.
One day Casey saw some kids dart across the tracks as his train rolled into Michigan City, Mississippi. He pulled the brakes but the train was still rolling to a slow stop. All the kids made it across except for a little girl who froze when she saw the train screeching toward her. Casey ran to the very front of the engine and perched himself on the tip of the cowcatcher where he was able pluck the girl off the tracks at the very last second. Heroics like these only added Casey's stellar reputation.
In 1900 he got his final promotion as the engineer on one of the passenger links between Chicago and New Orleans. On April 30, 1900, Casey was chugging along when he rounded a bend and spotted a stalled freight train on the tracks ahead. He hit the brakes and told his fireman to jump. The train whistle screamed as Casey slowed the train from 75 miles an hour down to about 35 miles an hour. Even at this reduced speed, the force of the crash was terribly destructive. The engine tore into the stationary caboose and smashed its way through three freight cars loaded with hay, corn and timber. A splinter of wood pierced Casey's neck and his right arm was torn from its socket. His hands were still clutching the whistle cord and the brake when he was pulled from the wreckage.
Casey was carried to a nearby depot where he died from his injuries. Thanks to Casey's quick actions to reduce speed and sound the warning whistle, no other lives were lost. The story of his heroics quickly spread through newspaper accounts of the crash. A folk song, The Ballad of Casey Jones has relayed the legend of his life-saving feat to every generation since.