Most Mississippians have heard of Casey Jones, the railroad engineer who became an American folk hero. But few know the real story behind Jones or any of the other colorful men who rode the rails of Mississippi during the golden age of steam.
Bruce Gurner of Water Valley loved to tell all about them. Gurner was a retired railroader and school teacher who spent almost 50 years researching Jones and the Mississippi Division of the Illinois Central Railroad, which was with headquarters in Water Valley.
His interest in railroading began in the late 1920's when he would go down to the tracks in Sardis and wave to his father, B. G. Gurner, who was working as a fireman on the run between Memphis and Canton. In fact, B. G. was working on #1 and #4 with Dad Norton, the engineer who took Casey's run. The train stopped to take on water there and on several occasions he was allowed to ride the engine.
"I got interested in Daddy's job," Gurner said. "Trains were fascinating and it was a bit frightening to ride that big hunk of steel."
In October of 1940 he began working as a machinist apprentice in the Puducah, Kentucky, railroad shop. By August of 1941 he was working on the road as a fireman. A few months later he was drafted and served four years in the Army.
After the war, Gurner railroaded for a short time before enrolling at Ole Miss. He received his Masters Degree in education in 1950 and began teaching junior high science at University High School in Oxford. He taught for 16 years, all the time working summers and Christmas vacations on the railroad.
In spring of 1965 he had to choose between his two careers. Railroading won. Because of his seniority as a
His hobby of collecting railroad memorabilia began in 1955 when the Water Valley depot was being torn down. Truckloads of old railroad records were being hauled to the trash heap. He saved as many as he could and took them home.
"For the next month or two I read and read and read. A whole new world opened up. This was the railroad in 1890."
Gurner discovered 92 trainsheets that listed Casey Jones. "It dawned on me that right here in my lap was the most famous railroader who ever lived. And they were hauling this stuff to the garbage dump."
As his interest grew, Gurner decided to talk with old railroaders and their families. From their stories he learned about the railroad and, more interestingly he says, about the railroad people themselves.
Word of his interest spread. People began coming to him with stories and photographs. "One night in '57, Mr. Bob Ward, who worked many years in the shop, dug into an old trunk and came up with a stack of pictures. Among them was one of the 382, Casey Jones's engine."
Another time Gurner was told about a trunk which had been stored for years in the back a downtown grocery store. In it he found the records for the local lodge of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen of which Casey Jones was a member. The record books were soiled and beginning to fall apart, so he hand copied each page.
By the early 1970's, he had accumulated enough pieces of the Casey Jones puzzle to publish his account of the wreck at Vaughan, which took Jones's life.
He said that the day would come when he could ask Casey why he didnít jump.
Bruce Gurner passed away February 18, 2002.
His collection of railroad memorabilia is now on display in the Water Valley Casey Jones Railroad Museum.
Casey Jones Main Page
Copyright © 2002 Jack Gurner