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Famed railroad man Casey Jones born 150 years ago (Photos)

JACKSON, Tenn. - Legend has it that farmers set their watches by the Cannonball’s mournful cry. With Casey Jones at the throttle, the Cannonball Express thundered down the tracks right on time.

Famed railroad man Casey Jones born 100 years ago
Jackie Sheckler Finch
Famed railroad man Casey Jones born 100 years ago
Jackie Sheckler Finch

In an era of keen competition between railroads, it was important to keep on schedule to attract and keep lucrative mail contracts. Known as a “fast roller,” Casey did what it took “to get her in on the advertised.”

But Jones is not remembered for being a stickler for a schedule. It was his bravery that earned him a place as a folk hero. The famed railroad man was born 150 years ago and the pocket watch that Casey carried until his death – stopped at 3:52 a.m. when he died - is now displayed at Casey Jones Village.

“He saved people’s lives,” says T. Clark Shaw. “That’s why people honor him. Almost everyone has heard of Casey Jones and the famous song that tells his story.”

Traveling from Nashville to Memphis, I stopped at the village to hear the exploits of this legendary figure. One of Tennessee’s top 10 travel attractions, the village is chock full of enough railroad history and paraphernalia to keep a rail buff happy for days. But that is only the beginning.

After wandering through the museum and Casey's old family home, I shopped for penny candy in The Old Country Store & Restaurant and enjoyed an old-fashioned strawberry soda at the 1890s Ice Cream Parlor. The newest addition to the village is Providence House, a 175-year-old home that was moved to the site and restored to host events.

Since it was a Sunday afternoon, The Old Country Store & Restaurant was packed, many of whom seemed to be regular patrons — a sure compliment for any dining spot. The menu features hearty country cooking, from Tennessee ham and catfish to homemade biscuits and "southern kracklin' cornbread" served hot off the griddle.

Ironically, this popular Tennessee attraction came about because of the health problems of one man.

BROOKS SHAW CREATES ATTRACTION

Back in the 1950s, Brooks Shaw took over as president of a canned meat company on the brink of bankruptcy. At 26 years of age, Shaw turned the Kelly Food Corporation around. But in the process, he suffered his first heart attack at age 32 and almost died.

“Then he had another heart attack,” said Brooks’ son, T. Clark Shaw. “And the doctors told him he needed a hobby to take his mind off the stress of business and relax a while.”

That’s how the country store came to be. “My Dad had worked in a little country store as a boy and had very fond memories of that experience,” Shaw said. “He knew that country stores were disappearing around the South and thought it would be neat to preserve such wonderful places.”

In April 1965, Brooks Shaw & Son Old Country Store became a reality. Brooks Shaw died of a massive heart attack in 1971 at age 46.

“We have a passion for what we do here,” said Deborah Shaw Laman, Brooks’ daughter. “We are carrying on what Dad loved.”

LEGEND OF CASEY JONES

Casey Jones was born Jonathan Luther Jones on March 14, 1863, in southeastern Missouri. His parents moved to Cayce, Ky., while he was very young and he later gained his famous nickname from fellow railroaders because of his hometown of Cayce.

Jones’ final hours began April 29, 1900, when he rolled into Memphis on his new Rogers 10-wheeler, No. 382. Told that the engineer scheduled to go south to Canton, Miss., was ill, Jones agreed to do the job if he could use his own fireman and No. 382.

He had a 190-mile journey ahead and the night was murky. As he neared the little town of Vaughn, Miss., the speeding Cannonball came upon red rear marker lights on the main track ahead. A caboose and three railcars were stuck on the track due to a ruptured air hose.

Jones yelled for his fireman to “Jump!” and began slowing the train down. In the final seconds of his life, Jones shut down the throttle, threw on the emergency brakes and slammed the gears in reverse.

While the locomotive left the track in the wreck, the passenger cars remained on the rails and only Jones was killed. His body was found in the wreckage with one hand on the brake lever. He is buried in Jackson. The antique hearse that carried him to his grave is now located in the village.

“The train wreck might have been forgotten except for Wallace Sanders, a railroad worker,” said museum director Lawrence Taylor. “Wallace Saunders wrote a ballad about Casey Jones and his story."

The tale has been recounted in song and story for over a century and thousands of visitors have come to the Casey Jones Village to remember the heroic railroad man. The home where Casey Jones and his family were living at the time of his death was moved to the complex in 1980.

Jones’ wife, Janie, never remarried. She died 58 years after the accident, still a widow.

For more information: Contact Casey Jones Village at (800) 748-9588, www.caseyjones.com

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