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?