Casey Jones (Wikimedia Commons)
One hundred fifty years after Casey Jones's birth, it's easy to be confused about just what the legendary railroad engineer did. Not only have the decades faded the memory of his deeds – so has pop culture, with a series of Casey Jones tales that range from a little wrong to near-complete fabrication.
It was April 30, 1900 when Casey Jones died in a train accident and the tales about his life began. More than a century ago, a sprawling country relied on the railroad for deliveries and travel. Engineer Jones took seriously the job of getting his train into each station on time, and he enjoyed challenging himself with breaking records along the way. He was running his engine fast on the night he died, working to make up for earlier delays. But he was also paying attention to orders from upcoming stations, who kept railroad traffic as organized as they could in the days before modern communications.
It wasn't Jones's fault that there was a train stalled on the track he was running on – nor that the train stalled just after a long curve, leaving it hidden from the engineer's view until beyond the last moment. When Jones did see the other train, it was too late to prevent a crash, but with a collision imminent, he acted heroically. Pulling the whistle to warn anyone in the other train, he slammed on the brakes and ordered his fireman to jump from the train. Jones, too, could have jumped, but if he had, he wouldn't have been able to work the brakes and slow his train – in the process, saving every passenger on board. The only person who died in the wreck was Jones himself, standing by his post in order to save lives.
That's the real truth – but the legend has gotten muddy as it's been passed down. It all started with a ballad by Wallace Saunders, written just a few years after Jones's death. This song gets many of the broad strokes right – it shows Jones as a skilled engineer who liked to run on time, and it attributes the accident that killed Jones to another train on the track. But it doesn't fill in the interesting details that show what a hero Jones was, and in an odd last couplet, it implies that Jones's wife was having an affair with another railroad man – something she fervently denied for the rest of her life.
In 1950, Disney made the cartoon The Brave Engineer based on the ballad, but the story was twisted around in such a way that even the broad strokes started to go off track. The cartoon shows an engineer who is so determined to be on time that he becomes dangerously reckless. It also has him arriving at the train's destination alive and alone – quite the opposite of the true outcome.
Joe Hill's "Casey Jones (Union Scab)", popularized by Pete Seeger, goes way off the rails – it has Jones breaking strike lines to make his run, then scabbing in heaven as well.
Jerry Garcia and The Grateful Dead turned the legend into a sketchy story of a drug-related accident.
Each version seems to add another filter to the legend, turning a true story of heroism into something a little stranger and a lot less accurate every time. No matter what the songs and stories tell us, the truth to remember is that Casey Jones gave his life to save others – he was a genuinely brave engineer.
Written by Linnea Crowther