Desolation at Vaughan

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Vaughn, Miss.; Casey JOnes

Rust marks the curve in Vaughan, Miss., where Casey plowed into a freight train on April 30, 1900. Photo by Kevin P. Keefe

The plan for the end of a recent vacation was simple. After a few days in the Florida Panhandle, my wife, Alison, and I would overnight in New Orleans, then drive back to Milwaukee over two days via our favorite college town, Oxford, Miss., our daughter's alma mater. These kinds of trips invariably are dedicated to food, Southern style, and you can't miss with either Oxford or the Big Easy. Doing railroad stuff was not part of the bargain.

Then, as we headed north up I-55 just 30 miles out of Jackson, it suddenly hit me: the trip could not remain train-free. Up ahead was exit 133, Vaughan Road, the gateway to what should be one of the most sacred places in railroading.

Most of you know something of Vaughan, the place where, at 3:52 a.m. on April 30, 1900, Casey Jones became a tragic legend by crashing his express, Illinois Central No. 1, the southbound New Orleans Special, into a standing freight train. With his hand straining on the brake handle, Jones rode 4-6-0 No. 382 straight into the caboose in front of him. He was killed instantly. But no one else was.

One of the best accounts of the wreck is the masterful feature written for Trains by Correspondent Peter Hansen in our April 2000 issue, and reprised this spring in our Train Wrecks special issue. Pete meticulously turns Casey from a one-dimensional hero into a complex professional, even as he dissects the disaster at Vaughan. It turns out there are nearly as many questions about Casey's wreck as there are answers, even after more than a century. What is not a question, Pete shows, is Casey's steady path from incidental victim of a train crash (all too common in those days) to heroic symbol of the brave engineer. From a hit vaudeville tune of 1909 to a dazed Grateful Dead anthem of 1970 to a string of books and historic sites dedicated to his memory, Casey sticks in the American consciousness.

You'd never know that by driving into Vaughan. Today the little hamlet is mostly abandoned. Whatever constituted Vaughan's commercial district is overrun with weeds, and the last two storefronts of any note are about to fall in on themselves. Down the street are a couple of occupied houses, but that's about it. Cutting straight through town is the old main line of the Illinois Central, today little more than a pair of rusty streaks on rapidly decaying ties. The current owner, Grenada Railway LLC, which bought the line from Canadian National in 2009, has stepped back from its plan to abandon this part of the old IC. But the railroad's future remains uncertain.

I first encountered Vaughan under far happier circumstances. It was in 1992, and I was riding Amtrak's City of New Orleans northward through central Mississippi, back in the days before the train moved over to IC's Yazoo District. That evening I made a point of finding a seat in the dome car, just in time to watch Vaughan go streaming past at 60 mph. I recall a particular thrill as the train healed into a slight northeasterly curve and I craned my neck to see the place where Casey crashed.

Six years ago I returned to Vaughan, driving up in the family car on an Easter Sunday, and things didn't look so bad. I was dumbstruck to see a solid-looking passenger depot along the tracks. It was the former Pickens, Miss., station, relocated to Vaughan as part of a plan for a Casey museum. Standing on the platform was Jack Gurner, who, along with his father, historian Bruce Gurner, have done as much as anyone to keep Casey's memory alive. Jack and some partners still were trying to keep a museum in Vaughan.

Alas, my visit a few weeks ago was disheartening. The Pickens station was gone, moved a couple of years ago, I later learned, to West, Miss., about 30 miles to the north. That's about as close to Vaughan as any preservation efforts are going to get, apparently. (Gurner is also a major figure in the definitive Casey Jones shrine, the Water Valley Casey Jones Museum in Water Valley, Miss., once a major division point on the IC).

I briefly surveyed the spot where the station stood, then turned north. A couple of hundred yards out of town, along a graceful curve in the IC track, I found the approximate spot where Casey met his maker. For years the state of Mississippi maintained a bronze historical marker near this spot, but today all that remains is a rusty pole near a trio of Dumpsters. Thieves made off with the marker a long time ago. The state apparently has no plans to replace it.

Mississippi has plenty of problems to deal with, from its persistent poverty to its long recovery from Hurricane Katrina. I guess priorities are priorities. But it still strikes me as a shame there's nothing left in Vaughan to tell the world what happened here. Last fall I drove the length of the CSX's old Western & Atlantic line in north Georgia, chasing the ghosts of the Great Locomotive Chase. The state of Georgia and local groups have put up markers, monuments, and museums at every spot where Union raider James Andrews or Confederate conductor William S. Fuller so much as sneezed or spit out a chaw of tobacco. The railroad right of way is festooned with tributes to the past. Doesn't Casey's hallowed ground deserve the same?

  • There ought to be some effort made at placing a marker here, the trouble is that America is full of criminals who steal everything that's not welded in place.

  • Part of the difference may be in the fact that the Great Locomotive Chase took place on what is still a major freight artery with a paralleling Interstate and Vaughan is located off the beaten path on an all-but-abandoned former main line.

  • Whenever I see track or other rail infrastructure rusted from little use or abandonment, I can't help feeling a little sad that a once vital part of a railroad has been left to the elements.  Your photo gets a little closer to home as I had many trips over that line when I worked for the IC.

    At my age I certainly know that things change, but not always for the worse.  Compare modern mainline track to a photo of the same spot 50 or 70 years ago and one sees CW rail of a much heavier weight set on solid ties in ballast rising a foot or more above the base.  Then if you stand by for a short time, you will see a speeding train of a size unknown a half century ago.

    It doesn't take to much of a sight like that to get over any feeling of loss of times past.

  • I am with Harvey. This history should be marked AND maintained...

  • We are living in troubled times but that should not be an excuse to forget part of our National Heritage.  Casey Jones is as much a part of American railroad history as driving the Golden Spike or The Great Locomotive Chase!

    It seems that the Great State of Mississippi, the National Park Service and even the Illinois Central Historical Society could work together for a common goal of restoring this sacred location and having it included in the historic landmark program.

    The track, if operated as a tourist operation, would help promote tourism in the area and provide new jobs to the area. A depot at the site would provide not only education about Casey Jones but the roll railroading has played in making America what it became.  

    It also could serve as a sponser for Operation Lifesaver to inform the public about the dangers of crossing the tracks without paying attention that a train can occupy a track at anytime and can result in death to the loss of an entire family.

    Kalmbach most certainly should make the first move to contact the parties mentioned above and should also take an active part in such a project!  Next to the depot, a freight station should be constructed to house a railroad diner and train shop, which would promote The World's Greatest Hobby and create additional jobs so badly needed in this part of the state.

    Sound impossible?  It is time to once again lite the fire of the American Spirit and show some "Can Do" incentive instead of doing nothing except morn the passing of another historic landmark.  

    Joe Toth

    The Trinity River Bottoms Boomer

  • Great, great story Kevin.

    I had no idea that Vaughn was one of those "time forgotten" places.

    With the attention given to it by TRAINS over the last decade, I always thought there to be at least a Casey Jones museum there.

    Your story makes me want to visit there now.

    Danny Harmon


  • Marker at the spot or not, Casey's immortal any way you look at it. The legend, the song, the way you can't say his name without smiling a bit (go ahead, try it!), and the way he's the king of American railroad lore.  A fine legacy for a fine man, and the more you learn about him the more you learn what a fine man he was.

  • Casey Jones is probably the most well known American railroad men in the history of US railroading.  It will be a tragic loss if this line isn't preserved and possibly made into a Historic Landmark for railfans, historians and the general public to visit and enjoy just like the site where the Golden Spike was driven in 1869.

    The Mississippi department of tourism, Illinois Central Historical Society as well as Trains, Classic Trains and Model Railroader should work together to study the possibility to create a tourist railroad or museum including a depot to properly insure that this track isn't ripped up with America loosing yet another piece of their rich historical heritage.

    Joseph Toth

  • Indeed, this historic site should be preserved and registered accordingly.  Just as the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson, Tennesee, pays tribute to Casey, surely Mississippi, the Illinois Central Histroical Society, and select groups or orgainzations should unite to insure that this rail line be left intact for future generations of railfans and historians alike to enjoy.

    It would be a prime location for a tourist railroad and depot to not only preserve this historic site but also boost Mississippi tourism and create jobs as well.  Perhaps Mississippi and Tennesee should work together to promote both locations as well as Casey's final resting place.

    Joseph Toth

  • Yeah, the marker MUST be replaced but I don't know how.

  • Great piece of writing- thank you for making that side trip.

  • You mentioned many mysteries still surrounding the Casey Jones wreck.  One that intrigues me is who was dispatching the Division the night Casey collided with the freight?  What orders did Casey hold?  Four trains were waiting at Vaughn for Casey's train to clear.  Who set up this saw-by meet?  Did Casey know about it?  If he was aware he would have known he had to come to a complete stop at the south switch of the passing track.  He would have had to approach Vaughn with his train under full control prepared to stop short of any obstruction and there would certainly have been one at the south switch.  That the obstruction was north of the north switch was just an accidental happenstance but to all appearences Casey had no idea he would be stopping in any case.

  • Another wreck from that same period in time was the "Wreck of Old 97" which does have historical markers in either Lynchburg or Danville, VA.  Here again, I think this disaster occured on what is still a busy railroad.  Many years ago, I worked as a radio technician for a major railroad.  I used to tell people that if there had been two-way radio back in 1900, Casey Jones might have been warned about the caboose fouling the main, stopped in time, and lived to collect his pension.

  • I had the opportunity to be a tour guide for the Illinois Central's 100th anniversary at Vaughn. Being from Water Valley, having known Bruce Gurner all of his life, and being well read on Casey Jones, it was a change of a lifetime. I was asked by the park ranger to be the guide at the wreck site. There was a concrete monument at the time but no marker. The way people steal markers for scrap, it would not last long.

  • Amen to Oxford-Wish the City of N O still used that route !!

Desolation at Vaughan