JACKSON, Tenn. – Standing at the railroad crossing on South Royal Street, a faint, almost distant whistle from a freight train breaks the day’s silence.
Will the afternoon freight soon be passing, an anxious railfan wonders, camera poised and ready to catch any action?
Not today. Instead, the lonesome whistle serves as an eerie reminder of the city’s history, long delegated to history books and oral history.
The Train Depot
Railroads came to Jackson in 1858 and within a few years, the city would become a regional railroad hub.
Today, a depot serves as the only reminder of the city’s railroading past. Built in 1907, the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railroad depot was restored in the 1990s and is today a museum dedicated to the city’s rail history.
Gracing the museum’s grounds include a pair of cabooses and an Amtrak dining car. Inside the depot is a model railroad exhibit and a vast collection of railroad-related relics.
During its heyday, several railroads served Jackson, including the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis, Illinois Central and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio railroads.
Today three railroads – Norfolk Southern, CSX and West Tennessee Railroad – still serve Jackson.
Casey Jones Railroad House Museum
Casey Jones was catapulted into American folklore and became a railroad legend during shortly before 4 a.m. on April 30, 1900.
Jones, born John Luther Jones on March 14, 1863, in Southeast Missouri, grew up in Cayce, Ky. When he was 15-years-old, Jones became an apprentice telegraph operator on the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. In March 1888, he took a job with the Illinois Central Railroad, pulling mostly freight trains for his first 11 years.
In 1899, Jones was offered a job engineering on the railroad’s Cannonball, connecting Chicago and New Orleans. He accepted the position and started engineering on the run in February 1900.
Late evening on April 29, 1900, Jones pulled the Cannonball into the Memphis station. However, a sick engineer was unable to continue the next leg of the journey, so Jones was called into action.
The Cannonball – pulled by engine No. 382 – pulled out of Memphis at 12:50 a.m., about 90 minutes behind schedule. By the time Jones reached Durant, Miss., Jones had made up almost all of the lost time.
At Vaughan, Miss., two freight trains – a northbound and a southbound – shared a siding, but were too long, and were also blocking the main line. Historians estimate Jones was traveling at upwards of 75 m.p.h. when he hit a warning torpedo on the train tracks and tried to stop the train. He then told his fireman, Sim Webb, to jump from the train and save his life.
Today, Jones, who lived in Jackson at the time of his death, is immortalized in song and folklore.
“He stayed with his train when he realized he was going to crash into a stalled train on the track in front of him,” Casey Jones historian Norma Taylor explained. “He did everything possible to lessen the impact of the crash and thereby saved all passengers, but lost his life in doing so.”
Today, his house is a museum. Although it has been moved from its original location, it is open to the public and features a wide array of exhibits, including railroad memorabilia and Jones’ personal effects.
A life-sized replica of Illinois Central Engine No. 382 – the locomotive Jones was engineering on his last trip – sits behind Jones’ house. The actual locomotive was repaired after the wreck and ran for 35 years before being scrapped, Taylor said. The museum’s replica formerly ran on the Clinchfield Railroad as engine No. 99. The locomotive was restored and moved to the museum.