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American Mythology Takes A Hit – Casey Jones or Thomas The Tank Engine.

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When American kids thinks of trains…

…do they think of this?


Engine 382, where Casey Jones had his Finest Hour. It lives in Tennessee.

….or this?


Thomas, based on an English Suburban Locomotive

I’m afraid it’s the latter.

I know an awful lot about Thomas the Tank Engine. I make it my business to know in detail what my children are interested in, and my son’s choo-choo obsession is no exception. He loves Thomas, the anthropamorphic tale of railroad life on the mythical Island of Sodor. He was also very impressed when last week we visited a great railroad museum just west of downtown Los Angeles. It was there that I realized a small cultural tragedy had taken place. The railroads are a profound part of the American Experience in so many respects. Seeing the towering, steel powerhouses of the Steam Era (in this case Southern Pacific locomotives) made me gasp. They were huge boilers on wheels without any aesthetic niceties at all. And yet in the history-free vista of modern America we hear nothing about them. The ballad of Casey Jones has been consigned to the Wikipedia. My father brought me up on it. But kids today would probably think Casey Jones was a runner-up on American Idol. That feeling was reinforced when I visited the gift shop at the museum. It was basically a Thomas the Tank Engine franchise, while outside just about any of the the black iron engines would have driven right over Thomas and his friends without feeling a bump.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Thomas, and Percy, Edward, Gordon, and Sir Topham Hat, but it’s a sad travesty that the most famous engine in the US is based on a locomotive that chugged the 60 pleasantly rolling miles from London to Brighton, rather than a Cannonball Express fighting to keep time across thousands of miles through the wind and rain of the Great Plains. All due respect to Thomas, but somehow the latter seems a tad more dramatic to me.

Other nations hold onto as much of their mythology as they can, but here in the US, we hold onto one whopper of a myth (Thanksgiving), and consign the rest, and there are many, to the dustbin of popular culture. So in the spirit of Archaeology, here are the lyrics to the Ballad Of Casey Jones.

Come all you rounders if you want to hear
A story ’bout a brave engineer,
Casey Jones was the rounder’s name
“Twas on the Illinois Central that he won his fame.

Casey Jones, he loved a locomotive.
Casey Jones, a mighty man was he.
Casey Jones run his final locomotive
With the Cannonball Special on the old I.C.

Casey pulled into memphis on Number Four,
The engine foreman met him at the roundhouse door;
Said, “Joe Lewis won’t be able to make his run
So you’ll have to double out on Number One.”

If I can have Sim Webb, my fireman, my engine 382,
Although I’m tired and weary, I’ll take her through.
Put on my whistle that come in today
Cause I mean to keep her wailing as we ride and pray.

Casey Jones, mounted the cabin,
Casey Jones, with the orders in his hand.
Casey Jones, he mounted the cabin,
Started on his farewell Journey to the promised land.

They pulled out of Memphis nearly two hours late,
Soon they were speeding at a terrible rate.
And the people knew by the whistle’s moan.
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

Need more coal there, fireman Sim,
Open that door and heave it in.
Give that shovel all you got
And we’ll reach Canton on the dot

On April 30, 1900, that rainy morn,
Down in Mississippi near the town of Vaughan,
Sped the Cannonball Special only two minutes late
Traveling 70 miles an hour when they saw a freight.

The caboose number 83 was on the main line,
Casey’s last words were “Jump, Sim, while you have the time.
“At 3:52 that morning came the fareful end,
Casey took his farewell trip to the promised land.

Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,
With the whistle in his hand.
Casey Jones, he died at the throttlle,
But we’ll all see Casey in the promised land.

His wife and three children were left to mourn
The tragic death of Casey on that April morn.
May God through His goodness keep them by His grace
Till they all meet together in that heavenly place.

Casey’s body lies buried in Jackson, Tennessee
Close beside the tracks of the old I.C.
May his spirit live forever throughout the land
As the greatest of all heroes of a railroad man.

Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,

Casey Jones, with the whistle in his hand.

Casey Jones, he died at the throttle,

But we’ll all see Casey in the promised land.

American History is a many splendoured thing. Young and old should reclaim it.


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