Auntie Doris’s They Died Too Young #31: Jonathan “Casey Jones” – Died April 30th 1907, aged 37


“Casey Jones, climbed into his cabin. Casey Jones, his orders in his hand. Casey Jones, leaning out the window, as he took his final journey to the promised land.” My mother used to sing that to me, well before it was on the television, and well before Johnny Cash used to sing it an’all. I thought that it was a made up song, I never knew that Casey Jones actually existed, and that he had died when the train he was driving smashed into the back of another one, which was standing on the station platform, but it was all true.
He loved being a train driver, did Casey. To him it was a thrilling and adventurous job, trains were still cutting edge technology then, and still something to get excited about. Even for people who don’t wear plastic macs and sit on the platform with home made sandwiches and a notebook. He had worked his way up from tea boy in the engine yard, to the man who was trusted with the best trains on the hardest jobs, and the way that he had done it was through always being reliable. When Casey said he was going to do something, he did it. And as a train driver, that meant always being on time. He was ruddy obsessive about timekeeping. They reckoned that they could set their watches by his trains as they were never even a few seconds late. They could do with him working for British a Rail these days, or they could have done if Thatcher hadn’t ruddy sold it off to her fat Tory friends.
Any road, they gave Casey this train called the Cannonball Express, which was a bit like a 1900 version of a Japanese bullet train, only it was American and it ran off steam.
One night, after he had been driving all day, they asked him to do overtime and drive down from Memphis, Tennesee, to Canton Mississippi. The only problem was that the train was already an hour and a half behind schedule. But Casey knew that he could get 85 miles an hour out of the Cannonball. He reckoned that even with having to go easy on the corners and uphill he could manage to get there in the four hours or so that he had left.
So he went for it, loaded up with passengers, (although The Lord alone knows why anyone would want to go from Memphis to Canton in the middle of the night) and click clacking down the track with the wind whistling through his hair and mad laughter in his eyes.
He nearly made it too. He got as far as Vaughan, a little town just 12 miles from Canton. But unfortunately, there was a freight train full of farming stuff standing on the track that shouldn’t have been there. Worse still, the station was on a bend and Casey was doing about 75 miles an hour when he finally saw the ruddy thing. First off, he shouted to his stoker, Sam to “Jump off the ruddy train NOW!” And gave him a shove to help him on his way. Sam smacked hard onto the ground , rolled down the sidings and ended up badly bruised and unconscious.
He was better of than Casey though. He smacked into the back of the freight train and died instantly, breaking every bone in his body.
But in the seconds before that happened he has slowed the train down to 35 mph, which meant that although his passengers got knocked about a bit, Casey was the only one killed. His dead body was gripping the brake handle and the whistle chord so tightly, they couldn’t prise his ruddy fingers off.
It’s like my Raymond always used to say about his coach driving days. “Nobody ever thanks you for doing a good job, they just give you a harder one to do next time.” That’s what happened to Casey. If he had only taken things a bit easier, he would be alive today. Well, actually, he wouldn’t be, but he would have stayed alive a damn sight longer than he did any road. It’s nice when trains run on time, but it should never be a matter of life and death. So think on.

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