U.S., Amtrak and before: The City of New Orleans and Panama Limited on the Main Line of Mid-America, the line of Casey Jones

November 2022 and the northbound City of New Orleans at Central Station in Memphis, Tennessee being hauled by a new Siemens Charger locomotive. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; December 6, 2022

The famed-in-song-and elsewhere The City of New Orleans is one of Amtrak’s trains which fairly adheres to its original Illinois Central Railroad route between Chicago and New Orleans. While The City today is a single-frequency train on an overnight route, in the pre-Amtrak days it pounded the rails between Chicago Central Station and New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal with plenty of passenger train company. Amtrak’s version departs from Chicago Union Station to a reinvigorated NOUPT. Under Illinois Central as a day train, The City of New Orleans was the longest day train route in the country.

Illinois Central Chicago Central Station with corporate headquarters on upper floors, circa late 1960s/early 1970s. It opened in 1893 and survived until 1972 after the start of Amtrak. After Amtrak trains were consolidated into Chicago Union Station on May 1, 1971, Central Station became a commuter rail station serving the Metra Electric District Line and the South Shore Line from Indiana. Today, this building has been demolished and replaced by the all-commuter Millennial Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Passenger pick up point at Central Station, circa late 1960s/early 1970s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A promotional post card of Central Station from the turn of the century. Wikimedia Commons image.
Aerial view of Chicago’s Central Station prior to World War I. Wikimedia Commons image.
Chicago’s Grant Park adjacent to Central Station. What looks like smears on the post card over the tracks actually indicates steam coming from passing steam locomotives. Wikimedia Commons image.
A 2010 view of the Metra Electric District Line which still traverses Grant Park from Millennial Station in Chicago. Wikimedia Commons photo.

In non-pandemic times Amtrak’s City of New Orleans has a consist of a baggage car, three Superliner coaches, a diner-lounge, Sightseer lounge, one sleeping car, and a transition/crew dormitory car.

The north and southbound City of New Orleans pass each other in Ponchatoula, Louisiana on former Illinois Central, now Canadian National tracks. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Arlo Guthrie in 1979. Guthrie today is 75 years old; he performed until 2020. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Panama Limited was the flagship, all-Pullman sleeping car train of the Illinois Central, inaugurated in 1911, and lasted until Amtrak Day in 1971. The train was named in honor of the under-construction Panama Canal, which would open three years later. Amtrak revived The Panama Limited name later in 1971 and kept it until 1981, when the City of New Orleans name was substituted. The fastest published schedule for The Panama Limited was 16 hours, terminal to terminal.

The song, City of New Orleans was penned in 1971 by Steve Goodman, and made famous the next year by folk singer Arlo Guthrie. In 1984 it was recorded by Willie Nelson and through the years by several other domestic and international artists. The version of the City of New Orleans celebrated in song was about the Illinois Central day train which was the companion to the more prestigious overnight train, The Panama Limited. At least one southern doyen tells the story of her birth in Memphis while her father, a cotton broker, was traveling for business on The Panama Limited and with his fellow passengers was enjoying the genial hospitality of the lounge car at that particular moment.

The Magnolia Star observation car on the rear of the Panama Limited at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal in 1967. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An earlier, 1917 version of the observation car on the Panama Limited. Wikimedia Commons image.
Amtrak’s Panama Limited in 1978 at Chicago Union Station. Wikimedia Commons photo by Bruce Fingerhood.
Balboa Docks of the Panama Canal in the Panama Canal Zone (the Panama Canal Zone would remain under United States control until the Jimmy Carter Administration in 1979). This photo was taken during the inter-war period of 1920s to 1930s. Wikimedia Commons photo.
S.S. Finland in 1925 transiting the Panama Canal which was built by the United States. Much of the materials for construction of the canal were manufacturing in the United States and moved by rail to various southern ports such as New Orleans, Mobile, and elsewhere. American construction of the canal, following the failed French effort, lasted from 1904 to 1914. The Panama Limited all-Pullman luxury passenger train was inaugurated by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1911, three years before the construction process was completed. Wikimedia Commons photo.
An oil tanker and the much larger Holland-America cruise ship both enter locks on the Panama Canal in 2015. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Panama City, Florida, in Florida’s panhandle is a city which owes its original growth from a small town to a comfortable city thanks to the popularity of the construction of the Panama Canal from 1904 to 1914. Wikimedia Commons photo.

As published by Wikipedia: “The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its dining car service, with a first-rate culinary staff and creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. In 1952, the Illinois Central acquired several 2-unit 175-foot dining cars from the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad which it used on the Panama. With the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited it was one of the last two ‘all-Pullman’ trains in the United States.”

Illinois Central, in direct competition with the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad – the two railroads would merge in 1972 to form the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad – styled itself as the Main Line of Mid-America. Ultimately, the Illinois Central would disappear into Canadian National in 1998. *See Note 1 at the end of this article for more information about Illinois Central passenger service.

Illinois Central offered something for everyone through its passenger train service between Chicago and New Orleans as listed in the July 1956 issue of The Official Guide of the Railways:

Pullman, Coach and Dining Car Service
Regularly Assigned Cars Are Air-Conditioned
All passenger trains shown herein carry coaches, except as indicated otherwise.

The Panama Limited. Daily. Trains 5 and 6.
Diesel-Powered Streamliner Train.
All Pullman-Train – Radio – No Coaches.
No. 5 – Chicago to New Orleans
No. 205-5 – St. Louis to New Orleans

A Pullman dome car on the Panama Limited in 1964. Does that logo under the middle window look familiar? In the summer, these dome cars were used on Northern Pacific’s Vista-dome North Coast Limited between Chicago and the west coast. In cold weather when North Coast Limited consists were smaller, excess dome cars were leased to Illinois Central for use on the Panama Limited. Twice a year the cars had their exterior paint changed from Northern Pacific greens to Illinois Central orange and browns and then colors reversed. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Sleepers –

Chicago to New Orleans, 6 sections, 6 roomettes, 4 double bedrooms

Chicago to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Chicago to New Orleans, 11 double bedrooms

Club Lounge – Chicago to New Orleans

Diner – Twin Unit, Chicago to New Orleans

Sleepers –

Chicago to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Parlor Car –

Chicago to Carbondale (Pullman Company) – (Illinois Central Tickets)

Sleepers –

St. Louis to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 6 double bedrooms

Memphis to New Orleans, 10 roomettes, 5 double bedrooms (Open for occupancy 9:30 p.m.)

Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, 10 roomettes,6 double bedrooms (May be occupied at Jackson, Mississippi until 8:00 a.m.)

Parlor Car –

Memphis to New Orleans (Pullman Company) – (Illinois Central Tickets)

Sleeper –

Chicago to New Orleans, 2 double bedrooms, 1 drawing room, 2 compartments – Observation

Buffet-Lounge Car, (RADIO.) Sandwiches – Refreshments (St. Louis to Carbondale) – (Illinois Central Parlor Car) I.C. tickets (Diner No. 5 Carbondale to New Orleans)

Coaches – St. Louis to Carbondale (on No. 205)

Illinois Central Panama Limited promotional post card, circa 1940s. Wikimedia Commons image.
In 1972, Amtrak was just a year old and equipment from all of the contributing railroads was scrambled together. Here is a colorful Panama Limited working its way through the yards in Chicago. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The City of New Orleans. Daily. Trains 1 and 2 and 201 and 202
Diesel-Powered Coach Streamliner.
De Luxe Reclining Seats – Stewardess – Radio.

Dining Car Service –

Chicago to New Orleans

Coaches –

Chicago to New Orleans (The Guide does not indicate the number of coaches, but other sources place the number at four or five.)

St. Louis to New Orleans

St. Louis to Carbondale

Tavern-Lounge-Observation Car, Chicago to New Orleans

A perfectly matched City of New Orleans in 1964 at the Grand Crossing overpass in Chicago.Wikimedia Commons photo.
Amtrak’s City of New Orleans in Chicago in May of 1972. Note the former Santa Fe Hi-Level coaches on the rear of the train. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The City of New Orleans in 1973 in Chicago. Wikimedia Commons photo.
1976 and the diesels on the City of New Orleans in Chicago are pretending they are steam locomotives with all of their extra exhaust. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Louisiane. Daily. Trains 3 and 4 and 103 and 104
No. 3 – Chicago to New Orleans
Diesel Powered.
No. 103 – Irvin S. Cobb, Daily.
Louisville-Memphis- New Orleans

Sleepers –

Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee, 11 double bedrooms

Chicago to Memphis, 18 roomettes

Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee, 8 sections, 1 drawing room, 2 compartments (Daily except Saturday)

Louisville to Paducah, Kentucky, 10 sections, 1 drawing room, 1 compartment (May be occupied at Paducah until 7:00 a.m.)

Diner-Lounge, Chicago to Memphis

Coaches –

Chicago to New Orleans (The Guide does not indicate the number of coaches.)

Louisville to Fulton

Fulton to Memphis

There was a fourth Chicago to New Orleans daily service, southbound labeled Southern Express, Train No. 25 and northbound, paired with The Creole, Train No. 8. The Southern Express – most likely named for the type of cars it carried, not for its train speed – was an all-coach train with no food service cars. Northbound, The Creole, was a full service train with sleepers, coaches and a diner-lounge, but, it, too, had a somewhat leisurely schedule as compared to other trains on the route, taking nearly 24 hours to make the trip.

Also in the famed Illinois Central fleet of trains was the City of Miami which contributed to the Chicago to Florida pool of trains which included the Seminole, also from the Illinois Central, the Pennsylvania Railroad’s South Wind and the Florida East Coast Railway’s Dixie Flagler. The City of Miami is depicted in this promotional photo; apparently the advertising mavens of the day thought everyone in Florida had a yacht. Wikimedia Commons photo.

During World War II, The Illinois Central Railroad went to war just as every other railroad in North America did; the IC did it’s part to honor and appreciate traveling service members home during the Christmas holiday. This is the Illinois Central System’s Christmas Dinner menu for 1944.

The history of America’s railroads during the war is well-known; everything it took to win the war – from members of the military to armaments to foodstuffs – moved by train. The Illinois Central found an unique way to pay homage to America’s fighting men and women who were traveling on IC trains over the Christmas holiday:

Internet image.

With this simple, inexpensive gesture by the railroad, how many lifetime passengers did they gain from military men and women and their families, grateful for recognition while away from home on a holiday and also living on modest military pay?

It’s innovation like this that is barely seen today.

The contemporary version of Amtrak’s City of New Orleans has an early afternoon northbound departure from New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal and an after-breakfast hour arrival at Chicago Union Station. Southbound, the City departs Chicago mid-evening and arrives in New Orleans late afternoon. Today’s trip takes about 19 and a half hours.

On October 9, 2005 the first train to operate out of New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal was the northbound City of New Orleans after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Robert Kaufmann for FEMA; Wikimedia Commons photo.

Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital is the first major city stop for the northbound City, and the biggest intermediate city along the route is Memphis, one of only two stations in Tennessee served by the City or any Amtrak train. The northbound City arrives in Memphis after 10 p.m., and the southbound City calls at Memphis Central Station at 6:27 a.m.

Memphis Central Station was built as a major terminal for the Illinois Central, complete with a high-rise (for its day in 1914) office building on top offering work space to IC division offices. Today, Amtrak uses a small part of the building space which has been specially built for passengers beyond the original structure and the rest of the building is a successful Hilton Hotels Curio Collection brand property.

A full view of Memphis Central Station/Hilton Hotels Curio Collection property/Amtrak station and surrounding neighborhood in November 2022. The northbound City of New Orleans is making its station stop and train and engine crew change. Wikimedia Commons photo.
A post card celebrating the new Memphis Central Station and Illinois Central Railroad division offices in 1914. Wikimedia Commons image.
A contemporary view of the former Illinois Central Memphis passenger station and division offices, now a Hilton Hotels Curio Collection full service hotel and Amtrak station. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Memphis Main Street Trolley is a dependable source of transportation from the main business district of downtown Memphis to the entertainment district of Beale Street and then down to the residential and restaurant/entertainment district around Central Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

For those wondering if a hotel directly adjacent to an active railroad track would be uncomfortably noisy for guests, the railroad track serving the station is only used today as a bypass by Canadian National, the successor to Illinois Central. Northbound and southbound frequencies of the City of New Orleans use the track and the highly infrequent freight train may rumble through the station when normal freight train tracks away from the station may be congested.

Early morning photo of the southbound City of New Orleans at Memphis Central Station after the first major renovation occurred in 1999. Wikimedia Commons photo.

Memphis Central Station has two tracks, down from the original five through tracks and five stub-end tracks when the station was built. A new platform was built when the station received its first major renovation in 1999, and an older asphalt island platform remains between the primary station track and the seldom-used house track.

Northbound Amtrak City of New Orleans in 1972 at Memphis Central Station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The area which originally housed the stub-end tracks is now the station/hotel parking lot.

In the late 1990s the City of Memphis took over the ownership of Central Station and poured $23.2 million into renovating much of the facility (not included was the former baggage area under the original stub-end tracks). The facility became a successful event venue and the upper floor offices were converted to condominiums.

The immediate area around Central Station on South Main Street had fallen into decay, but the upgrading of Central Station sparked a redevelopment surge which has renewed the area and turned it into a thriving business and residential enclave.

In 1999 when the station had a successful reopening with an estimated 10,000 people in attendance from a Friday night through Saturday afternoon, the Main Street streetcar line dead-ended just short of the Central Station entrance. The always-dependable, always-eclectic, decades-old Arcade Restaurant on the opposite corner from Central Station across South Main Street is still serving; it survived the decline of the area and now profits from the rebirth.

Central Station was again renovated in 2019 with a $55 million investment. The upper floor condos were bought-out and the entire facility was transformed into the Hilton Hotels Curio Collection property, with full hotel services. Amtrak’s custom-built ticket office and crew base was moved out of the edge of the original building, along with the Memphis Police Department vacating their district office space next to the Amtrak ticket office. A new space was built for Amtrak passengers and crew base outside the confines of the original building.

The area around Memphis Central Station, including the historic Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and is now the National Civil Rights Museum, has flourished because of the foresight of the City of Memphis to rescue an important railroad structure and update it to contemporary uses. This is a story which has been repeated in many cities, large and small, and is championed by the Great American Stations initiative.

Jackson, Mississippi Amtrak station, originally the Illinois Central station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The Jackson, Mississippi station has also undergone a similar renovation, on a much smaller scale. An original structure well-built for the Illinois Central Railroad as befitting a station in a state capital has been renovated and made fully useful again, befitting the surrounding neighborhood and the entire state capital city.

South of Illinois there are many smaller city and large town stations built in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries which have survived, been saved, and made useful again for decades to come, such as Greenwood, Mississippi.

The Illinois Central station at Greenwood, Mississippi in the 1960s, prior to the Amtrak era. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The same Greenwood, Mississippi station after renovations for Amtrak use by the City of New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons photo.
Contemporary station signage at Greenwood, Mississippi. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The City of New Orleans at Champaign, Illinois in 1962. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The Champaign/Urbana, Illinois Terminal, opened in 1999, replacing a former Illinois Central station. Wikimedia Commons photo.

North of Memphis is Illinois, sponsor of the Saluki and Illini regional trains which share stations with the City of New Orleans. Beyond the Chicago area, Illinois “gets it” that regional passenger trains have a high purpose. As a result, many stations along the route from Carbondale north to Chicago have been either renovated or outright replaced with new structures which serve far beyond a local passenger train station. Some cities in Illinois have discovered that train stations work well as focal points in a city which can offer a myriad of public and private services, all benefiting local residents as well as visitors.

Map depicting the change 1995 change of the route of the City of New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad. The red line on the west side is the current route; the blue line is the former route. The former route has become a short line freight railroad and Canadian National now owns the former Illinois Central Railroad and the line depicted on the west side. Wikimedia Commons image.

Every major passenger train route has a link to folklore and history. The Panama Limited and City of New Orleans are no exception. In 1995, the route of today’s City of New Orleans was shifted from the original City/Panama Limited route to a parallel Illinois Central sub-division to the west because that track was better maintained than the original route through Batesville and Granada. Even with better track and modern infrastructure technology, the ride on today’s City of New Orleans through the deltas is bumpy because of shifting ground below the track.

What is notable about the old route is that is the one the fabled Casey Jones and the Cannonball met his destiny and rendezvous with history with the wreck of Illinois Central locomotive 382, known as the Cannonball, at Vaughan, Mississippi when his passenger train rammed into the rear of a stopped freight train. The resulting lore of this infamous wreck on the line between Memphis and south of Canton, Mississippi produced a famous ballad, The Ballad of Casey Jones, one late 1950s television series, at least two early Hollywood movies, and an assortment of other memorabilia.

If Casey Jones, above, looks vaguely familiar from the comic book cover merchandising the 1957-1958 television show Casey Jones, that’s because the actor is Alan Hale, Jr., who in 1964 became forever known as Gilligan’s Skipper on the Gilligan’s Island television show. Internet image.

While the story of Casey’s heroic demise has romanticized (he allegedly died with his hand on the brake and whistle, saving the lives of everyone else in his passenger train), there is little doubt he may have had a disregard for in-place safety measures on the foggy night of the accident, and the wreck was preventable. But, like much other railroad lore, the romanticized version wins out over the factual historic version. *See Note 2 at the end of this article for excerpts from Wikipedia’s length entry on Casey Jones.

Internet image.
Internet image.

*Note 1: Further information about passenger service on the Illinois Central Railroad from Wikipedia:

“Illinois Central was the major carrier of passengers on its Chicago-to-New Orleans mainline and between Chicago and St. Louis. IC also ran passengers on its Chicago-to-Omaha line, though it was never among the top performers on this route. Illinois Central’s largest passenger terminal, Central Station, stood at 12th Street east of Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Due to the railroad’s north-south route from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, Illinois Central passenger trains were one means of transport during the African American Great Migration of the 1920s.

The Illinois Central Railroad often hired outside counsel to represent the railroad in court. One of the attorneys working for the IC in the 1850s would become more famous later as Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States. Wikimedia Commons image.

“Illinois Central’s most famous train was the Panama Limited, a premier all-Pullman car service between Chicago and New Orleans, with a section breaking off at Carbondale to serve St. Louis. In 1949, it added a daytime all-coach companion, the City of New Orleans, which operated with a St. Louis section breaking off at Carbondale and a Louisville section breaking off at Fulton, Kentucky. In 1967, due to losses incurred by the operation of the train, the Illinois Central combined the Panama Limited with a coach-only train called the Magnolia Star.

“On May 1, 1971, Amtrak took over intercity rail service. It retained service over the IC mainline, but dropped the Panama Limited in favor of the City of New Orleans. However, since it did not connect with any other trains in either New Orleans or Chicago, Amtrak moved the route to an overnight schedule and brought back the Panama Limited name. However, it restored the City of New Orleans name in 1981, while retaining the overnight schedule. This was to capitalize on the popularity of a song about the train written by Steve Goodman and performed by Arlo Guthrie. Willie Nelson’s recording of the song was #1 on the Hot Country Charts in 1984.

File illustration.

“Illinois Central ran several other trains along the main route including The Creole and The Louisiane.

“The Green Diamond was the Illinois Central’s premier train between Chicago, Springfield and St. Louis. Other important trains included the Hawkeye which ran daily between Chicago and Sioux City and the City of Miami eventually running every other day between Chicago and Miami via the Atlantic Coast Line, the Central of Georgia Railroad and Florida East Coast Railway.

Illinois Central Railroad and Chicago Central Railroad combined route map from 1996. Wikimedia Commons image.

“The Illinois Central was also a major operator of commuter trains in the Chicago area, operating what eventually became the “IC Electric” line from Randolph Street Terminal in downtown Chicago to the southeast suburbs. In 1987, IC sold this line to Metra, who operates it as the Metra Electric District. It still operates out of what is now Millennium Station, which is still called “Randolph Street Terminal” by many longtime Chicago-area residents. In honor of the Panama Limited, the Electric District appears as “Panama Orange” on Metra system maps and timetables. Additionally, the IC operated a second commuter line out of Chicago (the West Line) which served Chicago’s western suburbs. Unlike the electrified commuter service, the West Line did not generate much traffic and was eliminated in 1931.

“Amtrak presently runs three trains daily over this route, the City of New Orleans and the Illini and Saluki between Chicago and Carbondale. Another Illinois corridor service is planned for the former Black Hawk route between Chicago, Rockford and Dubuque. Amtrak, at the state of Illinois’ request, did a feasibility study to reinstate the Black Hawk route to Rockford and Dubuque. Initial capital costs range from $32 million to $55 million, depending on the route. Once in operation, the service would require roughly $5 million a year in subsidies from the state.”

*Note 2: Excerpts of the story of Casey Jones from Wikipedia; consult Wikipedia for the full, lengthy article:

John LutherCaseyJones (March 14, 1863 – April 30, 1900) was an American railroader who was killed when his passenger train collided with a stalled freight train at Vaughan, Mississippi.

Casey Jones at the locomotive throttle. Date unknown. Wikimedia Commons photo.

“Jones was a locomotive engineer for the Illinois Central Railroad, based in Memphis, Tennessee, and Jackson, Mississippi. He was noted for his exceptionally punctual schedules, which sometimes required a degree of risk, though this was not a factor on his fatal last journey. However, there is some disagreement about the sequence of events on that night, April 29–30, 1900.

“He was due to run the southbound passenger service from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi, departing 11:35 pm. Owing to the absence of another engineer, he had to take over another service through the day, which may have deprived him of sleep. He eventually departed 75 minutes late, but was confident of making up the time, with the powerful ten-wheeler Engine No. 382, known as ‘Cannonball’.

“Approaching Vaughan at high speed, he was unaware that three trains were occupying the station, one of them broken down and directly on his line. Some claim that he ignored a flagman signalling to him, though this person may have been out of sight on a tight bend, or obscured by fog. All are agreed, however, that Jones managed to avert a potentially disastrous crash through his exceptional skill at slowing the engine and saving the lives of the passengers at the cost of his own. For this, he was immortalized in a traditional song, ‘The Ballad of Casey Jones’.

“Jones went to work for the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, performed well and was promoted to brakeman on the Columbus, Kentucky, to Jackson, Tennessee, route, and then to fireman on the Jackson, Tennessee, to Mobile, Alabama, route.

“In the summer of 1887, a yellow fever epidemic struck many train crews on the neighboring Illinois Central Railroad (IC) providing an unexpected opportunity for faster promotion of firemen on that line. On March 1, 1888, Jones switched to IC, firing a freight locomotive between Jackson, Tennessee, and Water Valley, Mississippi.

“He was promoted to engineer, his lifelong goal, on February 23, 1891. Jones reached the pinnacle of the railroad profession as an expert locomotive engineer for IC. Railroading was a talent, and Jones was recognized by his peers as one of the best engineers in the business. He was known for his insistence that he ‘get her there on the advertised [time]’ and that he never ‘fall down’, meaning he never arrived at his destination behind schedule. He was so punctual, it was said that people set their watches by him.

“His work in Jackson primarily involved freight service between Jackson and Water Valley, Mississippi. Both locations were busy and important stops for IC, and he developed close ties with them between 1890 and 1900.

“Jones was also famous for his peculiar skill with the train whistle. His whistle was made of six thin tubes bound together, the shortest being half the length of the longest. Its unique sound involved a long-drawn-out note that began softly, rose and then died away to a whisper, a sound that became his trademark. The sound of it was variously described as ‘a sort of whippoorwill call,’ or ‘like the war cry of a Viking.’ People living along the IC line between Jackson and Water Valley would turn over in their beds late at night upon hearing it and say ‘There goes Casey Jones’ as he roared by.

“A little-known example of Jones’s heroic instincts in action is described by his biographer and friend Fred J. Lee in his book Casey Jones: Epic of the American Railroad (1939). He recounts an incident in 1895 as Jones’s train approached Michigan City, Mississippi. He had left the cab in charge of fellow engineer Bob Stevenson, who had reduced speed sufficiently for Jones to walk safely out on the running board to oil the relief valves. He advanced from the running board to the steam chest and then to the pilot beam to adjust the spark screen. He had finished well before they arrived at the station, as planned, and was returning to the cab when he noticed a group of small children dart in front of the train some 60 yards ahead. All cleared the rails easily except for a little girl who suddenly froze in fear at the sight of the oncoming locomotive. Jones shouted to Stevenson to reverse the train and yelled to the girl to get off the tracks in almost the same breath. Realizing that she was still immobile, he raced to the tip of the pilot or cowcatcher and braced himself on it, reaching out as far as he could to pull the frightened but unharmed girl from the rails. The event was partially spoofed in The Brave Engineer, in which the hero rescued a damsel from a cliché bandit.

Opening title page from the 1957-1958 television season of Casey Jones, which ran for 32 episodes. Internet image.

“Jones was issued nine citations for rules infractions in his career, with a total of 145 days suspended. But in the year prior to his death, Jones had not been cited for any rules infractions. Railroaders who worked with Jones liked him but admitted that he was a bit of a risk-taker. Unofficially though, the penalties were far more severe for running behind than breaking the rules. He was by all accounts an ambitious engineer, eager to move up the seniority ranks and serve on the better-paying, more prestigious passenger trains.

“Jones, in February 1900, was transferred from Jackson, Tennessee, to Memphis, Tennessee, for the passenger run between Memphis and Canton, Mississippi. This was one link of a four-train run between Chicago, Illinois, and New Orleans, Louisiana, the so-called ‘cannonball’ passenger run. ‘Cannonball’ was a contemporary term applied to fast mail and fast passenger trains of those days, but it was a generic term for speed service. This run offered the fastest schedules in the history of American railroading. Some veteran engineers doubted the times could be met and some quit.

“Engineer Willard W. ‘Bill’ Hatfield had transferred from Memphis back to a run out of Water Valley, thus opening up trains No. 2 (north) and No. 3 (south) to another engineer. Jones had to move his family to Memphis and give up working with his close friend John Wesley McKinnie on No. 638, but he thought the change was worth it. Jones would drive Hatfield’s Engine No. 384 until his death in 1900.

“There is disagreement over the circumstances prior to Casey Jones’s fatal last run. In the account given in the book Railroad Avenue by Freeman H. Hubbard, which was based on an interview with fireman Sim Webb, he and Casey had been used extra on trains 3 and 2 to cover for engineer Sam Tate, who had marked off ill. They returned to Memphis at 6:25 a.m. on the morning of April 29, giving them adequate time to be rested for number 1 that night, which was their regular assigned run.

“The Fred J. Lee biography Casey Jones contended the men arrived in Memphis on No. 4 at 9 p.m. on the evening of April 29. They were asked to turn right around and take number 1 back to Canton to fill in for Sam Tate, who had marked off. This would have given them little time to rest, as Number 1 was due out at 11:35 p.m. In both of these accounts, Jones’s regular run was trains 1 and 4.

“In a third account, trains 3 and 2 were Jones and Webb’s regular run, and they were asked to fill in for Sam Tate that night on No. 1, having arrived that morning on No. 2.

“In any event, they departed Memphis on the fatal run at 12:50 a.m., 75 minutes behind schedule owing to the late arrival of No. 1. The crew felt the conditions of the run, including a fast engine, a good fireman, a light train, and the rainy or damp weather, were ideal for a record-setting run. The weather was foggy that night, reducing visibility, and the run was well known for its tricky curves.

“In the first section of the run, Jones drove from Memphis 100 miles south to Grenada, Mississippi, with an intermediate water stop at Sardis, Mississippi, over a new section of light and shaky rails at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. By the time Jones arrived at Grenada for another water stop, he had made up 55 minutes of the 75-minute delay.

“Jones made up another 15 minutes in the 25-mile stretch from Grenada to Winona, Mississippi. By the time he got to Durant, Mississippi Jones was almost on time. He was quite happy, saying at one point, ‘Sim, the old girl’s got her dancing slippers on tonight!’ as he leaned on the Johnson bar.

“At Durant, he received new orders to take to the siding at Goodman, Mississippi (8 miles south of Durant), wait for the No. 2 passenger train to pass, and then continue on to Vaughan. Furthermore, he was informed he would meet local No. 26 passenger train at Vaughan (15 miles south of Goodman). He was told that No. 26 was in two sections and would be on the siding, so he would take priority over it. Jones pulled out of Goodman only five minutes behind schedule. With 25 miles of fast track ahead, Jones likely felt that he had a good chance to make it to Canton by 4:05 am ‘on the advertised’.

“Unbeknownst to Jones, three separate trains were in the station at Vaughan. The No. 83, a double-header freight train (located to the north and headed south), which had been delayed, and the No. 72, a long freight train (located to the south and headed north), were both on the passing track to the east of the main line. The combined length of the two trains was ten cars longer than the length of the east passing track, causing some of the cars to be stopped on the main line. The two sections of No. 26 had arrived from Canton earlier, and required a saw-by maneuver to get to the house track west of the main line. The saw-by maneuver required that No. 83 back up onto the main line in order to allow No. 72 to move northward and pull its overlapping cars off the main line and onto the east side track from the south switch, thus allowing the two sections of No. 26 to gain access to the house track. The saw-by, however, left the rear cars of No. 83 overlapping above the north switch and on the main line, directly in Jones’ path. As workers prepared a second saw-by to let Jones pass, an air hose broke on No. 72, locking its brakes and leaving the last four cars of No. 83 on the main line.

“At the same time, Jones, who was almost back on schedule, was running at about 75 miles per hour toward Vaughan. As Jones and Webb approached the station, they went through a 1.5-mile left-hand curve that blocked Jones’ view from the engine’s right side. Webb’s view from the left side was better, and he was first to see the red lights of the caboose on the main line. He alerted Jones, who ordered him to jump from the train. Webb leapt out about 300 feet before impact, and was knocked unconscious. The last thing he heard as he jumped was the long, piercing whistle used by Jones to warn anyone still in the freight train looming ahead. At that point, Jones was only two minutes behind schedule.

Casey Jones memorial post card, circa 1950s. Wikimedia Commons image.

“Jones reversed the throttle and slammed the airbrakes into emergency stop, but the engine quickly plowed through several loaded train cars before derailing. He had been able to reduce his speed to about 40 miles per hour before impact. It’s believed Jones’ actions prevented any other serious injury and death; Jones was the only fatality of the collision. His watch stopped at the time of impact, 3:52 a.m. Popular legend holds his hands still clutched the whistle cord and brake when his body was pulled from the wreckage.

“The next morning, Jones’s body was transported to Jackson, Tennessee by the No. 26 passenger train. A funeral service was held on May 2, 1900, at St. Mary’s Church, where he and Janie Brady had married fourteen years before. He was buried in Mount Calvary Cemetery. A record fifteen enginemen rode 118 miles from Water Valley to pay their last respects.

“The headlines in The Jackson Sun (Jackson, Tennessee) read: ‘FATAL WRECK – Engineer Casey Jones, of This City, Killed Near Canton, Miss. – DENSE FOG THE DIRECT CAUSE – Of a Rear End Collision on the Illinois Central. – Fireman and Messenger Injured – Passenger Train Crashed Into a Local Freight Partly on the Siding – Several Cars Demolished.’

“A Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper report described the accident:

The south-bound passenger train No. 1 was running under a full head of steam when it crashed into the rear end of a caboose and three freight cars which were standing on the main track, the other portion of the train being on a sidetrack. The caboose and two of the cars were smashed to pieces, the engine left the rails and plowed into an embankment, where it overturned and was completely wrecked, the baggage and mail coaches also being thrown from the track and badly damaged. The engineer was killed outright by the concussion. His body was found lying under the cab, with his skull crushed and right arm torn from its socket. The fireman jumped just in time to save his life. The express messenger was thrown against the side of the car, having two of his ribs broken by the blow, but his condition is not considered dangerous.

“Jones’s legend was quickly fueled by headlines such as, ‘DEAD UNDER HIS CAB: THE SAD END OF ENGINEER CASEY JONES,’ The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee; and ‘HEROIC ENGINEER – Sticks to his post at cost of life. Railroad Wreck at Vaughan’s on Illinois Central Railroad – Terrible Fatality Prevented by Engineer’s Loyalty to Duty – A passenger’s Story,’ The Times-Democrat, New Orleans.

“The passenger in the article was Adam Hauser, formerly a member of The Times-Democrat telegraph staff. He was in a sleeper on Jones’s southbound fast mail and said after the wreck:

The passengers did not suffer, and there was no panic.

I was jarred a little in my bunk, but when fairly awake the train was stopped and everything was still.

Engineer Jones did a wonderful as well as a heroic piece of work, at the cost of his life.

The marvel and mystery is how Engineer Jones stopped that train. The railroad men themselves wondered at it and of course the uninitiated could not do less. But stop it he did. In a way that showed his complete mastery of his engine, as well as his sublime heroism. I imagine that the Vaughan wreck will be talked about in roundhouses, lunchrooms and cabooses for the next six months, not alone on the Illinois Central, but many other roads in Mississippi and Louisiana.

“A conductor’s report filed five hours after the accident stated, ‘Engineer on No.1 failed to answer flagman who was out proper distance. It is supposed he did not see the flag.’ This was the position the IC held in its official reports.

“The final IC accident report was released on July 13, 1900, by A.S. Sullivan, the General Superintendent of IC. It stated that ‘Engineer Jones was solely responsible having disregarded the signals given by Flagman Newberry.’ John M. Newberry was the flagman on the southbound No. 83 that Jones hit. According to the report, he had gone out a distance of 3,000 feet, where he had placed warning torpedoes on the rail. He continued north a further distance of 500 to 800 feet, where he stood and gave signals to Jones’s train No.1. Historians and the press had questions about the official findings.

“In the report Fireman Sim Webb states that he heard the torpedo explode, then went to the gangway on the engineer’s side and saw the flagman with the red and white lights standing alongside the tracks. Going to the fireman’s side, he saw the markers of the caboose of No. 83 and yelled to Jones. But it would have been impossible for him to have seen the flagman if the flagman had been positioned 500–800 feet before the torpedoes as the report says he was. In any event, some railroad historians have disputed the official account over the years, finding it difficult if not impossible to believe that an engineer of Jones’s experience would have ignored a flagman and fusees (flares) and torpedoes exploded on the rail to alert him to danger.

“Contrary to what the report claimed, shortly after the accident and until his death Webb maintained, ‘We saw no flagman or fusees, we heard no torpedoes. Without any warning we plowed into that caboose.'”

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article originally appeared on this website on January 6, 2021 and March 10, 2021. Those materials have been incorporated along with new information into this article along with photographs, maps, and illustrations. – Corridorrail.com Editor

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