These come from a rediscovered treasure - a book entitled "Railroad Avenue" that I got from my father so many years ago. Written by Freeman H. Hubbard and published in 1935, it is filled with ballads, stories, and lore from the days when trains were the only way to travel, steam was still king, and every boy's hero was the locomotive engineer!
I wish I had the time to type in the book in its entirety and share it with everyone. From The Legend of Jawn Henry, to the Real Casey Jones, the Great Locomotive Chase, and The Wreck of the Old 97, it's all in here, along with many less-known stories. The men who worked these mighty fire-breathing beasts still did so when this was published, and were interviewed for the book. So much lore and history!!
Descriptions of incidents that inspired the ballads are paraphrased from Railroad Avenue.
I'll be adding things from the book to this page from time to time.
In Railroad Town
by Earle Franklin Baker
In Railroad Town the yard goats toil
And powder up the rails with sand;
While journals get the waste and oil;
The crummy silently does stand.
The hotshot's clamor fills the air;
The drill crew men, all lean and brown,
Go dancing nightly to the blare
Of herding cars in Railroad Town.
I know, for I too was one of these,
The dumbest boomer of the band,
A youthful spring in legs and knees,
A bright glim ready in my hand.
From beanery queens I got my cue
To swap a kiss or play the clown;
It mattered not, when jobs were new
And likewise short . . . in Railroad Town.
I close my eyes and see them still:
The bakehead scooping, black with dust;
The pinhead cutting off the mill;
The play of lights on streaks o' rust;
The girls who worked at Mother Halls;
The stake you saved, the Super's frown -
What mem'ries haunt my cottage walls
In Railroad Town, in Railroad Town.
The Wreck of Old 97
by Dave Graves George
In the case of this title, "old" signifies endearment rather than age. The song is based upon a real tragedy which took place Sept. 27, 1903, about three years after the death of Casey Jones. Ninety-seven was a mail train which carried no passengers, a fact that caused much less loss of life than would otherwise be true. She was the pet train of the Southern Railway, and on this particular night, was running an hour behind schedule when she reached the division point of Monroe, VA, and a new crew took charge. Joe Broady was the new engineer, and had only worked for the Southern for a month, though he'd worked for N&W before that. He had two firemen that night, was relatively new to the job, was an hour behind time, and was willing to gamble. He took the bridle off of Locomotive #1102, a ten-wheeler, and let her romp.
On the outskirts of Danville, VA, a wooden trestle carried the track over a 75' ravine with a combination of a curve and a descending grade. This made the "Stillhouse Trestle", as it was known, a posted "Slow Up" area. It was here that #1102 left the rails, due to excessive speed, and she plunges one-hundred feet ahead of the place where she left the track. The following song about the wreck became immensely popular, and was among the songs recorded by the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1924.
On a cold, frosty morning in the month of September
When the clouds were hanging low,
Ninety-seven pulled out of Washington station
Like an arrow shot from a bow.
Oh, they handed him his orders at Monroe, Virginia,
Sayin': "Steve, your away behind time.
This is not Thirty-eight, but it's old Ninety-seven;
You must get 'er in Spencer on time!"
Oh, he looked round his cab at his black, greasy fireman,
Sayin': "Shovel in a little more coal,
An' when we cross that White Oak Mountain
You can watch old Ninety-seven roll!"
It's a mighty rough road from Lynchburg to Danville
And the line's on a three-mile grade.
It was on that grade that he lost his air brake,
And you see what a jump he made.
He was goin' down hill at ninety miles an hour
When the whistle broke into a scream.
He was found in the wreck with his hand on the throttle
And a-scalded to death with the steam!
Now, ladies, you must take warnin',
From this time ever more,
Never speak harsh words to your true lovin' husbands;
They may leave you never to return!
The Chatsworth Wreck
The following song is about a real incident that took place August 10, 1887 on the Toledo, Preoria and Western railroad near Chatsworth IL.
The railroad, needing money, had created a round-trip excursion train to from central Illinois to Niagara Falls, and had sold tickets for $7.50 each, a real bargain even for the time, so tickets sold rapidly. Fifteen cars and two locomotives were coupled together to make up the Niagara Falls Excursion, and 960 men, women, and children crowded aboard. Because of the large number of people, the train got off to a late start, and the engineer of the lead locomotive "opened her up" in an effort to get back "on the advertised."
There had been little or no rain since the middle of July, and everything was very dry. A section crew had been burning weeds and dry grass along the track so as to minimize the danger of a possible prairie fire.
The Piper City culvert was a wooden culvert fifteen feet long spanning a ditch about six feet deep. Apparently, the section crew failed to completely extinguish all the sparks from their burning, and the culvert caught fire. When the Niagara Falls Excursion came thundering along, there wasn't time to stop the train once the fire was seen. The lead locomotive made it safely across and then the culvert collapsed into a pit of fire. The second locomotive fell into the flaming ditch, dragging all the cars with her, coaches splintering as they impacted other coaches, and nearly a thousand terror-stricken people were flung into chaos. Broken oil lamps from the coaches added to the fire, and the old splintered dry wooden cars, filled with people still trapped inside, rapidly caught. No water was at hand, and a strong breeze fanned the flames.
All told, eighty-two people lost their lives, and an indeterminate number injured. In 1887, this was close to an all-time death record for a railroad accident.
From Peoria, town and hamlet
There came a joyous throng
To view the great Niagara;
In joy they sped along,
The maiden and her lover,
The husband and the wife,
The merry, prattling children,
So full of joyous life.
But oh! how much of sorrow,
And oh! how much of pain
Awaited those who journeyed
On that fated railway train.
With hand upon the lever
And eye upon the track,
The engineer was standing,
While the shades of night grew black.
They passed the town of Chatsworth
And rushing into gloom;
Oh, could some power have saved them
Ere they had reached their doom!
For see those smoldering embers
That lie along the ridge;
Oh, God, in pity save them;
It is the railroad bridge!
Too late to turn the lever,
Too late to stop the train,
Too late to soothe their sorrow,
Too late to soothe their pain!
A mighty crash of timber,
The sound of hissing steam,
The groans and cries of anguish,
A woman's stifled scream.
The dead and dying mingled
With broken beams and bars,
An awful human carnage -
A dreadful wreck of cars.
All honor to the hero
Who the flame and fury fought
All through that night of horror,
An honor deadly fraught,
As over land and water
The thrilling message crossed:
The bridge was burned at Chatsworth
And a hundred lives were lost!
by Wallace Saunders
Probably no railroading name or story is better known than this one! Popularized in song by barbershops quartets, and later by phonograph records and radio, the name of Casey Jones is synonymous with trains, locomotive engineers, and highballing.
Casey Jones was a real man. Born John Luther Jones on March 4, 1864, his nickname Casey came from his boyhood town of Cayce, KY. He first went to work in railroading at the age of sixteen, when, without pay, he started doing odd jobs around the Columbus, KY depot of the Mobile & Ohio line in order to learn telegraphy. In due time, he qualified as a ham operator, but instead of following up, he hired out as messenger or caretaker for livestock shippers, where he'd ride M&O freights tending the cattle then being shipped out of western Kentucky. From there, he graduated to brakeman, and later to fireman.
In the summer of 1887, a yellow-fever epidemic resulted in a scarcity of men, and Casey got his chance to work for the Illinois Central. On March 1, 1888, he hired on with the I.C. and two years later was promoted to engineer on a yard goat at Jackson Mississippi. This was followed by a period pulling a local mixed train between Jackson and Water Valley, MS. Casey developed a reputation as a good engineer and a ''fast roller'' - someone who the dispatcher could depend upon keep his schedule and his train on time. He graduated to fast freights and a Consolidation locomotive.
On the first day of 1900, Casey fell heir to the Illinois Central's choicest run - the Cannonball Express, which ran between Chicago and New Orleans, and at the time had the speediest schedule in the railroad's history. He was assigned locomotive No. 382, a McQueen ten-wheeler 4-6-0.
On Sunday, April 29, 1900, delays on the line forced the Cannonball Express to leave Memphis an hour and thirty-five minutes late. Casey was determined to make up the time and arrive in Canton ''on the advertised.'' No. 382 was steaming mighty well that night as they thundered south to the towns of Sardis, Grenada, Winona, and Durant. Casey and his fireman, Simm Web* had it figured that they'd be back on time when they reached Way, just six miles north of Canton.
Twelve miles above Canton was the town of Vaughan at the lower end of a double S curve. In the middle of the first S was the north switch. As they roared down on it, Simm Web saw two big red lights. Casey couldn't see them from his side of the cab. Simm, realizing that the lights were a train not in the clear, yelled a warning to Casey, who yelled for him to jump at the same time he applied the brakes. Simm jumped, and when he came to half an hour later, Casey Jones was dead. His locomotive had plowed through the caboose and two cars on the rear of the freight train fouling the main line... a car of shelled corn and a car of hay. No one else was killed.
One explanation for the freight train fouling the main was that a failure in an air hose had brought it to a sudden halt before it could get in the clear. The train crew hadn't put out a flagman as they were supposed to. The crew, of course, disputed this, and the real truth may never be known. Ultimately, the blame was placed on Casey.
No. 382 was rebuilt and placed back in service on the Cannonball, but acted so erratically that the men regarded her as a hoodoo. Six months after Casey's death she dropped a front pilot wheel while coming to a stop at Canton, making the Cannonball late that night. In 1903, she turned over at a switch, seriously injuring the engineer and killing the fireman and a transient. Again she was shopped, and again she turned over, this time in front of the Memphis Coffin Works. Still later, she left the tracks three different times in the Memphis yards. Finally, in 1935, she was sent to Chicago to be scrapped. En route, she jumped the rails again, killing another fireman.
This original version of the Casey Jones ballad was composed by an illiterate Canton roundhouse worker, one of Casey's many friends.
Come all you rounders, I want you to hear
The story told of a brave engineer.
Old Casey Jones was the rounder's name
On a six-eight wheeler he won his fame.
Caller called Casey at half-past four;
He kissed his wife at the station door,
Climbed into the cab with his orders in his hand,
Says, ''This is my trip to the Promised Land.''
Through the South Memphis yards on the fly,
He heard his fireboy say, ''You got a White Eye.'' **
And all the switchmen knew by the engine's moans
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.
It had been raining some five or six weeks;
The railroad track looked like the bed of a creek.
They loaded him down to a thirty-mile gait
And threw the southbound mail about eight hours late.
Fireman hollered: ''Casey, you're going too fast.
You run the block-board the last station we passed.''
Casey says: ''Yes, but I think we'll make it through,
For she's steaming better than ever I knew.''
Says Casey: ''Fireman, don't you fret.
Keep knocking at that firebox; don't you give up yet,
For I'm going to run her till she leaves the rail
Or make it on time with the southbound mail.''
Around the curve and over the hump,
Two locomotives were about to bump.
Fireman hollered: ''Casey, she's just ahead!
We might jump and make it, but we'll be dead!''
Around the curve he spied a train,
Reversing his engine caused bells to ring.
Fireman jumped off, but Casey stayed on.
He's a good engineer, but he's dead and gone.
Poor Casey Jones, he was all right.
He stuck to his duty both day and night.
They loved to hear his whistle and the ring of Number 3,
And he came into Memphis on the old I.C.
Headaches and backaches and all kinds of pain
Are not apart from a railroad train.
Tales that are earnest, noble and grand
Are all in the life of a railroad man.
* Simm Web was still alive
when this book was published in 1935, and was interviewed by the
** ''White Eye'' meant a clear signal in the days when green indicated caution.