Next week, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) will celebrate its 150th anniversary at a May 8 event in Detroit. We've been counting down great moments in the history of North America’s oldest union, but April 30 marks a different kind of event—the anniversary of the death of John Luther "Casey" Jones, an American hero and one of the BLET’s most legendary figures.
Jones, an engineer and member of the union’s Division 99 in Water Valley, Miss., sacrificed his own life in 1900 to save his train full of passengers from a horrific crash. There was a stalled freight near Vaughan, Miss., and conditions were wet and foggy. As Jones’ train, No. 382 (the “Cannonball Express,”), rounded a bend, the train’s fireman Sim Webb spotted several cars on their train’s track. Brother Jones told Webb to jump, but Jones stayed aboard to try and slow down the train.
Facing certain death, Jones stayed behind the throttle and was able to reduce the speed of his train enough to save many lives — except his own. Reports of the accident state that a bolt or a piece of splintered lumber hit Jones in the throat, leaving him mortally wounded. Crewmen from the other trains carried Jones on a stretcher for half a mile to the depot. There, lying on a baggage wagon, Jones died. While a few passengers were slightly injured, no other deaths resulted from the accident thanks to the bravery and self sacrifice of Casey Jones.
The Illinois Central railroad tried to pin the accident on Jones, but others—including his fireman Webb—fought that claim. In the minds of Americans, Jones was a hero, and newspaper reports hailed him as one. "The Ballad of Casey Jones," written by his friend and fellow railroad worker Wallace Sanders, became a folk music standard. It was later re-recorded by such artists as Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger, and Johnny Cash. There was also a movie, a television series and even an animated cartoon based on his life.
None of these projects resulted in a financial windfall for Jones’ wife and three children. However, they received payments from two union life insurance policies from the Brotherhood’s Locomotive Engineers Mutual Life & Accident Insurance Association, and eventually a settlement from Illinois Central. There was no pension, as the Railroad Retirement system was not established until 1937.
BLET honors the legacy of Casey Jones as a shining example of the steps its members have and continue to take to keep their passengers, cargo, and the public safe. It is this kind of exemplary service we will be celebrating in Detroit next week.