Growing up in England during the 1960s, much of my TV viewing was black and white series from America, like Zorro, Lassie, and a show about the American folk hero, Casey Jones. Every schoolboy knew Casey’s train ran through prairie, deserts, and “Indian country.” After all, the dude had a cowcatcher — you never saw one of those on trains like The Flying Scotsman!
So imagine my surprise — 20 years later — when I finally visited the Casey Jones museum, only to discover it's in Jackson, Tennessee. What’s more, Casey’s final ride didn’t take place out West at all, but rather on a run from Memphis to Canton, Mississippi.
In fact, the fatal crash took place in Vaughan, Mississippi.
So last month, I drove my family to see it again, and am happy to report that since my first visit, a museum building has been attached to Casey Jones’ house, and the complex now includes a theater, train platform, and gift shop.
After viewing a 5-minute movie, we walk into the exhibit, which covers the railroad’s role in the Civil War, Casey Jones’ boyhood, and his rise through the railroad ranks to engineer. By the time he was married with children, Casey had become one of the most reliable, on-time engineers with the Illinois Central Railroad. He was so punctual it is said people set their watches by him. On his fateful last ride, he was driving the passenger train, the Cannonball Express, and slammed on its breaks to lessen a collision with a stalled freight engine. Jones' was the only person to die that night, and he was hailed a hero for saving the lives of his passengers. A folk song immortalized him.
As a fact-finding treasure hunt for your children, see if they can ring a bell, learn why this engineer was called “Casey,” discover the link between Evergreen Cemetery and Casey’s fireman Sim Webb (who survived the crash),
and figure out where the train station in Memphis was that Casey departed from. (The marker for that infamous last ride is at Poplar and N. Front Street.) Ask your children why Casey Jones is hailed as a hero even though the train crashed. For the adults, see if you can find the connection between Jones and Erik Larsen’s book Devil and the White City about the Chicago World’s Fair.
My girls, ages 4 and 13, both enjoy the diorama that shows how the crash occurred on April 30, 1900. Afterwards, we exit onto the platform to see the train, engine, carriage, and caboose. This is the same model of train (built to resemble Casey’s engine which was rebuilt after the wreck but later scrapped as obsolete), and by far the highlight of the trip.
My kids love climbing into the cab, pulling the levers and ringing the engine’s bell.
Naturally, I have to do the same — just to be sure it's safe, you see.
Since most visitors have never ridden on a train — much less a steam one — it’s surprising just how huge it is; this makes a big impression on the kids.
From here you go into the home of the Jones family, circa 1900, and after seeing how the family lived, it’s the standard “exit through the gift shop.” Strangely, most train toys are Thomas the Tank or Chuggington, so there’s not a cow-catcher in sight. We come away with two large wooden train whistles, though, a good value for under $10 each.
Working the admission window we spy an elderly lady who looks like the photograph of Casey's 80+-year-old granddaughter who volunteers here. We're too polite to ask, but keep your eyes open.
Our visit takes an hour and a half, and across the parking lot/town square is a country buffet and gift shop that guarantees you'll eat so much the car will ride lower going home. Dine first and you’ll find an admission coupon on the back of the receipt. There are also gift shops and art galleries nearby. During our meal, we're among Australians, British, and German tourists, all who have come to Jackson just to see the Casey Jones Museum. Indeed, it’s a treasure not to be missed.
Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum • caseyjones.com 56 Casey Jones Lane, Jackson, TN 38305 • (877) 700-7942 Open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Adults: $6.50, Senior citizens: $5.50. Children ages 6-12: $4.50. Children 5 & under: Free, AAA and military discounts.