The Quick 10: 10 Famous Trains

It was this month in 1900 that Mr. John Luther Jones (that's Casey to you and me) lost his life while manning the Cannonball Express. As you'll see in a second, although he was killed in a train collision, his heroic act saved the lives of all of the passengers and crew aboard, so I think it's fitting that we honor him by talking about famous trains today. Also, I think my dad will like this one because he works for the railroad and has developed an affinity for trains over the years. Hi, dad! Without further ado"¦

casey1. The Cannonball Express, AKA the New Orleans Special, was Illinois Central Railroad's fastest line back in 1900. Casey Jones (so called because of his hometown "“ Cayce, Kentucky) volunteered to make the Memphis, Tenn., to Canton, Miss., route when the usual engineer turned up sick. The train was already 95 minutes behind schedule, but Casey loved a challenge and was excited to see if he could get the train on time. It's what he was known for, after all "“ his extreme punctuality. Legend has it that people would set their watches based on when Casey's famous whistle sounded as it passed through their town (he had a distinct train whistle). Anyway, it was looking like he had a pretty decent chance of making it to Canton "on the advertised," when tragedy struck: a train in Vaughan, Mississippi, was stuck on the tracks when it should have been pulled off to the nearby house track. An air hose had apparently broken and locked the brakes in place. Casey couldn't see the train on the tracks in advance because he was coming around a curve, but he did what he could to slow the train as much as possible and sounded the whistle continuously to warn the other train. He told Sim Webb, his fireman, to jump for it. He stayed in place until impact, still trying to slow the train as much as possible. Although he had slowed it from 75 mph to 35 mph, his position on the train and the force of the impact killed him, probably instantly. But thanks to his efforts, he was the only fatality.

orient2. I knew the Orient Express had been around for a while, but it's older than I thought: the first run was on June 5, 1883 from Paris to Vienna. At that time it was known as the Express d'Orient. Later that year, the route was expanded to include stops in Romania and Germany and by 1889 was going as far east as Istanbul. Services were halted during WWI, but in 1919 they expanded again to include Milan, Venice and Trieste. WWII interrupted service again, but they were resumed in 1945. You can still take the Orient Express from Strasbourg to Vienna, and you can recreate the path by taking a few other trains. But, sadly, the Direct Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul ended in 1977. Or you can recreate the experience by reading some of the famous books it has been mentioned in "“ Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, of course, but also Bram Stoker's Dracula, From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming, and Stamboul Train by Graham Greene, among others.

3. The Hiawatha trains, which ran from Chicago to Minneapolis, first appeared on the tracks in 1935. They were named after Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha." There was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which ran straight from the Windy City to the Twin Cities; the North Woods Hiawatha, running from the main line through parts of Wisconsin; the Chippewa-Hiawatha, which ran through a different part of Wisconsin; the Midwest Hiawatha from Chicago to Omaha; and the Olympian Hiawatha, which took passengers all the way from Chicago to Seattle. Those have all terminated at this point, but you can still get from Chicago to Milwaukee using the Hiawatha Service, which should get you between the two cities in about 90 minutes.

california limited4. The California Limited is another oldie. She started her route in 1892, going from Chicago to L.A. What's fun about this one is that she was the first to feature "the best Fred Harvey meals on rails." The Fred Harvey Company was a chain of railroad restaurants "“ the first was in Topeka in 1876, but by the 1890, Fred set up a lucrative deal with Santa Fe Railroad to open up a bunch of his eateries along their routes and as a result they could be found about every 100 miles. I guess they were like the Waffle Houses of their day. Except Waffle House seems to be slightly more ubiquitous. Eventually the service spread to Santa Fe's dining cars, which had food and service staffed by the Fred Harvey Company. Fred and Santa Fe went their separate ways in the early "˜30s when Fred realized he could make more money by going beyond one line; in fact, he started to go off of the railways entirely, setting up restaurants over Illinois Tollway Oases.

5. The California Zephyr is one you can still ride in its entirety from Chicago to Emeryville, California. The Zephyr was one of the first to be billed as a mini-vacation in and of itself; in the late "˜40s you would even find Zephyrettes on board. About 12 women were assigned to each train and they were tasked with doing just about anything (within reason, people, within reason) to make sure that their passengers had a relaxing trip "“ including babysitting and serving as tour guides. The Zephyr that rides the rails today isn't the original, but if you want to see a replica of the real thing, head to Disney's California Adventure, where a fake Zephyr houses a bakery and ice cream counter near the front of the park.

6. The Rock Island Rockets were notable because they were some of the first diesel-powered trains. And they had a line called the Des Moines Rocket, which ran from Chicago to DSM. I like to give the 515 a shout-out whenever I can, so consider my duty fulfilled for the week. Other Rockets ran from Chicago to Peoria, Fort Worth to Houston, Minneapolis to Kansas City, and Kansas City to Denver.

north coast7. The North Coast Limited started operations on April 29, 1900 "“ the day before Casey Jones made his fateful run on the Cannonball, but wasn't anywhere near the disaster "“ the North Coast Limited ran from St. Paul to Puget Sound. In her heyday, the NCL was known for consistently having the best dining car service in the business "“ fresh flowers adorned the tables set with linen table cloths.

8. The Orange Blossom Special is pretty well known thanks to the Ervin T. Rouse song that was later the name of a 1965 Johnny Cash album (which Johnny covered on the album). It ran from New York to Miami. Ervin T. Rouse and Chubby Wise saw the Orange Blossom when it was in Jacksonville, Florida, and were inspired to write a fiddle tune about it (Chubby was a legendary bluegrass fiddler)"¦ at least, that's the story. Records show that the train they saw was a streamlined train, which wouldn't have been the Orange Blossom, which used heavyweight Pullman sleepers, diners and coaches. If they did indeed see a streamlined train, it was likely the Silver Meteor, a streamlined train with stainless steel coaches.
Here's a double whammy for you: Mr. Cash performing both Casey Jones and Orange Blossom Special (he uses the harmonica instead of the fiddle).

royal blue9. The Royal Blue was the B&O Railroad's passenger train between NYC and DC starting in 1890. And it was royal indeed "“ one railroad historian called it "An inspired blend of majesty and mystique." The interiors of each car were made of mahogany, the cars were heated and lighted and the windows were made of leaded glass. The chefs were trained in France and prepared duck and terrapin. In the "˜30s and "˜40s they served meals on Dresden China and decked out the cars with glass chandeliers and colonial-style furnishings (they called it the "Martha Washington" series). FDR liked to ride the Royal Blue when he was in office, often taking a special presidential train from D.C. to the family estate in Hyde Park, New York. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip tried the train in 1957, but even their glamour wasn't enough to keep the line afloat "“ its last run departed from Washington Union Station at 3:45 p.m. on April 26, 1958, and was covered by Edward R. Murrow for CBS.

10. The Marrakesh Express is a real train, in case that Crosby, Stills & Nash song ever had you wondering. Graham Nash took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh in 1966 and booked himself a posh first-class seat, but found himself bored and went back to sit with the "ducks and pigs and chickens."

Do you have any memorable train rides to tell of? Tell us all about it in the comments. I'm afraid I have nothing to contribute this time, although I'm suddenly inspired to take a cross-country train trip!

9 Curses for Book Thieves From the Middle Ages and Beyond

It may seem extreme to threaten the gallows for the theft of a book, but that's just one example in the long, respected tradition of book curses. Before the invention of moveable type in the West, the cost of a single book could be tremendous. As medievalist Eric Kwakkel explains, stealing a book then was more like stealing someone’s car today. Now, we have car alarms; then, they had chains, chests … and curses. And since the heyday of the book curse occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe, it was often spiced with Dante-quality torments of hell.

The earliest such curses go back to the 7th century BCE. They appear in Latin, vernacular European languages, Arabic, Greek, and more. And they continued, in some cases, into the era of print, gradually fading as books became less expensive. Here are nine that capture the flavor of this bizarre custom.


A book curse from the Arnstein Bible, circa 1172
A curse in the Arnstein Bible
British Library // Public Domain

The Arnstein Bible at the British Library, written in Germany circa 1172, has a particularly vivid torture in mind for the book thief: “If anyone steals it: may he die, may he be roasted in a frying pan, may the falling sickness [i.e. epilepsy] and fever attack him, and may he be rotated [on the breaking wheel] and hanged. Amen.”


A 15th-century French curse featured by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses has a familiar "House That Jack Built"-type structure:

“Whoever steals this book
Will hang on a gallows in Paris,
And, if he isn’t hung, he’ll drown,
And, if he doesn’t drown, he’ll roast,
And, if he doesn’t roast, a worse end will befall him.”


A book curse excerpted from the 13th-century Historia scholastica
A book curse from the Historia scholastica
Yale Beinecke Library // Public Domain

In The Medieval Book, Barbara A. Shailor records a curse from Northeastern France found in the 12th-century Historia scholastica: “Peter, of all the monks the least significant, gave this book to the most blessed martyr, Saint Quentin. If anyone should steal it, let him know that on the Day of Judgment the most sainted martyr himself will be the accuser against him before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


Drogin also records this 13th-century curse from a manuscript at the Vatican Library, as notes. It escalates rapidly.

"The finished book before you lies;
This humble scribe don’t criticize.
Whoever takes away this book
May he never on Christ look.
Whoever to steal this volume durst
May he be killed as one accursed.
Whoever to steal this volume tries
Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!"


A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
A book curse from an 11th century lectionary
Beinecke Library // Public Domain

An 11th-century book curse from a church in Italy, spotted by Kwakkel, offers potential thieves the chance to make good: “Whoever takes this book or steals it or in some evil way removes it from the Church of St Caecilia, may he be damned and cursed forever, unless he returns it or atones for his act.”


This book curse was written in a combination of Latin and German, as Drogin records:

"To steal this book, if you should try,
It’s by the throat you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming 'oh, oh, oh!'
Remember, you deserved this woe."


This 18th-century curse from a manuscript found in Saint Mark’s Monastery, Jerusalem, is written in Arabic: “Property of the monastery of the Syrians in honorable Jerusalem. Anyone who steals or removes [it] from its place of donation will be cursed from the mouth of God! God (may he be exalted) will be angry with him! Amen.”


A book curse in a 17th century manuscript cookbook
A book curse in a 17th century cookbook

A 17th-century manuscript cookbook now at the New York Academy of Medicine contains this inscription: "Jean Gembel her book I wish she may be drouned yt steals it from her."


An ownership inscription on a 1632 book printed in London, via the Rochester Institute of Technology, contains a familiar motif:

“Steal not this Book my honest friend
For fear the gallows be yr end
For when you die the Lord will say
Where is the book you stole away.”


One of the most elaborate book curses found on the internet runs as follows: "For him that stealeth a Book from this Library, let it change to a Serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with Palsy, and all his Members blasted. Let him languish in Pain, crying aloud for Mercy and let there be no surcease to his Agony till he sink to Dissolution. Let Book-worms gnaw his Entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final Punishment let the Flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.”

Alas, this curse—still often bandied about as real—was in fact part of a 1909 hoax by the librarian and mystery writer Edmund Pearson, who published it in his "rediscovered" Old Librarian's Almanack. The Almanack was supposed to be the creation of a notably curmudgeonly 18th-century librarian; in fact, it was a product of Pearson's fevered imagination.

Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
John W. Jones: The Runaway Slave Who Buried Nearly 3000 Confederate Soldiers
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

John W. Jones was as close to a sinless man as you could find—with the exception of the time he lied to his mother.

It was a late June evening in 1844 and the 26-year-old enslaved man, who lived on a plantation near Leesburg, Virginia, told his mother that he was leaving to attend a party. His real plans were much riskier. Jones slipped outside, grabbed a pistol, and rendezvoused with four other enslaved men. With starlight as their guide, they crept through the Virginia woods. Their destination: North.

The men hiked approximately 20 miles every day, dodging slave catchers in Maryland and crossing the Mason-Dixon Line into the free state of Pennsylvania. Following a major route along the Underground Railroad, they needled through Harrisburg and Williamsport and traced a path along what is now State Route 14. When the exhausted men snuck into a barn near the New York border to sleep, Jones kept guard as the others rested: He sat down, laid a shotgun on his lap, and kept his eyes peeled.

“He was serious about getting his freedom,” says Talima Aaron, President of the John W. Jones Museum Board of Trustees. “He understood the danger, and he constantly took responsibility for others. You’ll notice that was a thread for him—responsibility for others.”

Jones never had to use the gun. When the barn’s owner, Nathaniel Smith, discovered the five men on his property, he invited them into his home. His wife Sarah served the group hot biscuits and butter and cared for them until their strength returned. It was the first time many of them had ever been inside a white person’s home. According to an 1885 profile in The Elmira Telegram, the gesture brought the men to tears.

On July 5, 1844, Jones crossed a toll bridge into Elmira, New York, with less than $2 in his pocket. Unlike most runaways bound for Canada, Jones decided to stay in Elmira. It’s here that Jones would become one of the country's most successful Underground Railroad conductors, one of the richest black men in the state of New York, and the last earthly link for nearly 3000 dead Confederate soldiers.


Living in the north did not mean Jones had it easy. He could not vote. He still shared sidewalks with former slave-owners. When he asked to receive an education at the local schools, he was denied.

But Jones had a knack for cracking ceilings. After earning the admiration of a local judge, he was allowed to study at an all-women’s seminary, exchanging janitorial work for reading and writing lessons. He joined a church with abolitionist leanings and become its sexton, maintaining its cemetery. Then he became the sexton of a second cemetery, and then a third. The community quickly grew to respect his work ethic and, eventually, Jones had earned enough money to buy a small house—a house that he transformed into a vital hub for the Underground Railroad.

At the time, the Underground Railroad—an informal network of trails, hiding places, and guides that helped slaves escape northward—was under intense scrutiny. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had created financial incentives to report runaways living in free states. “Slave catchers from the south could come up to a place like Elmira and claim that a person of color was a runaway slave, and they could haul them back into slavery—even if that person had been born free,” says Bruce Whitmarsh, Director of the Chemung County Historical Society. There were steep penalties for aiding a person’s escape.

Jones didn’t care. Not only did he join the Underground Railroad, he was openly vocal about it, loudly pledging his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in a message that was published in abolitionist newspapers across the region: “Resolved, that we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States.” Jones committed to resisting the law, even at the risk that “everyone of us be assassinated.”

The Underground Railroad in Elmira was unique: Since the town included the only train stop between Philadelphia and Ontario, it actually involved locomotives. Jones communicated regularly with William Still, the chief "conductor" of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia, and built a cozy network of abolitionists who worked on trains passing through town. He provided runaways with housing, food, and even part-time jobs. “Runaways usually came in groups of four, six, or 10,” Aaron says. “But he had up to 30 at once in his little house.” Jones arranged hiding space for all of the escapees on the 4 a.m. “Freedom Baggage Car” to Canada, as it was unofficially known.

Over the course of nine years, Jones aided the escape of around 800 runaway slaves. Not one was captured.

During the last years of the Civil War, the same railroad tracks that had delivered hundreds of runaways to freedom began to carry thousands of captive Confederate soldiers to Elmira’s new prisoner of war camp. Once again, Jones would be there.


Of the 620,000 Civil War deaths, approximately 10 percent occurred at prison camps. The most notorious P.O.W. camp—in Andersonville, Georgia—saw 13,000 Union troops, or approximately 29 percent of the prison population, perish. After the war, Andersonville's commander was tried for war crimes. The camp is now a National Historic Site.

Meanwhile, the prison camp in Elmira has been largely forgotten. Today, the riverside site is little more than an unremarkable patch of dandelion-speckled grass; a small, easy-to-miss monument is the only marker. It belies the fact that while Elmira's camp was noticeably smaller than Andersonville's—only one-quarter its size—it was just as deadly: If you were a prisoner at “Hellmira,” there was a one-in-four chance you would die.

Elmira Prison Camp
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

Elmira was never supposed to have a prison camp; it was a training depot for Union soldiers. But when the Confederacy began refusing to exchange African-American soldiers—who it considered captive slaves, not prisoners of war—the Union stopped participating in prisoner exchanges. “Both sides started scrambling for places to expand, and that’s how Elmira got caught up in the web,” says Terri Olszowy, a Board Member for the Friends of the Elmira Civil War Prison Camp.

The rollout was ill-planned, Olszowy explains. When it opened in July 1864, the camp had no hospital or medical staff. The first prisoners were already in rough shape and deteriorated quickly. Latrines were placed uphill from a small body of water called Foster’s Pond, which quickly became a cesspool. A shelter shortage meant that hundreds of soldiers were still living in tents by Christmas. During spring, the Chemung River flooded the grounds. Rats crawled everywhere. When authorities released a dog to catch them, the prisoners ate the dog.

The camp grew overcrowded. Designed to hold only 5000 prisoners, it saw approximately 7000 to 10,000 men confined there at its peak. Across the street, an observation tower allowed locals the opportunity to gawk at these prisoners through a pair of binoculars. It cost 10 cents.

It must have been a depressing sight, a scene of men stricken with dysentery, scurvy, typhoid, pneumonia, and smallpox. Many prisoners attempted to escape. One group successfully dug a 66-foot tunnel with spoons and knives. One man fled by hiding in a barrel of swill. Another hid inside a coffin, leaping out as he was being hauled to Woodlawn Cemetery.

It’s said that 2973 Confederate prisoners left the Elmira prison camp in coffins for real. The job to bury them belonged to the town’s sexton: John W. Jones.


The P.O.W. cemetery in Elmira is unique. The dead at many prison camps were buried in mass graves; Chicago’s Oak Woods Cemetery, for example, contains a plot filled with the remains of prisoners detained at Camp Douglas that is believed to be largest mass grave in the western hemisphere. All 2973 of the dead at Elmira, however, received an individual, marked grave in a special section of Woodlawn cemetery. Only seven are unknown. Jones's effort to give each soldier an individual grave, as well as his meticulous record-keeping, were a big part of why the federal government designated the P.O.W. portion of Woodlawn a "National Cemetery" in 1877—a status awarded to veterans' cemeteries deemed to be of national importance, and which has only been awarded to 135 cemeteries nationwide.

Jones treated each dead soldier with superhuman levels of grace. Overseeing a crew of 12, he managed the burial of about six soldiers every day, treating each body as if that person had been a member of his own church. He kept detailed records of each soldier’s identity by creating improvised dog tags: Around each person's neck or under their arm, Jones tucked a jar containing a paper detailing their name, rank, and regiment. That same information was neatly scrawled on each coffin. When the dirt settled, Jones marked each plot with a wooden headstone.

“No one told him how to do that job, he did it in the way that he thought was right—even though the people he buried were fighting a war to keep people like him enslaved,” Aaron says. “He even knew one of the young men who had died, and he reached back to the South and told the parents so they knew where their child was buried. That speaks to his compassion.”

According to Clayton W. Holmes’s 1912 book Elmira Prison Camp, “History does not record anything to challenge the assertion that at no prison, North or South, were the dead so reverently cared for, or a more perfect record kept.” In fact, when representatives of the Daughters of the Confederacy came to Elmira at the turn of the century to consider repatriating the remains, Jones’s handiwork convinced them to touch not a blade of grass. Instead, a monument in the cemetery commemorates the “honorable way in which they were laid to rest by a caring man.”

Aaron sees a second moral in the story. “People always talk about the tension between him being an escaped slave and burying with respect and dignity these Confederate soldiers fighting to keep people like him as slaves,” she says. “But to me there’s a subtext: Here is a grown man who escaped slavery, and the first thing he wanted to do when he reached freedom was get an education. Because of that, he was able to keep these meticulous records that later led to this national designation: It became a historical moment because this man, who was denied an education, got one.”

John W. Jones
Chemung County Historical Society, Elmira, NY

It also made a mark on Jones’s bank account. Jones earned $2.50 for each soldier he buried. It wasn’t much, but by the time he had finished burying nearly 3000 Confederate dead, he had become one of the 10 richest African-Americans in the state of New York. With that money, he bought a handsome farm of at least 12 acres.

It was a bittersweet purchase. Not only is it believed that parts of his home were built from wooden scraps of the disassembled Elmira prison camp, Jones had purchased the home when New York state law stipulated that black men must own $250 worth of property in order to vote. His home—today listed on the National Register of Historic Places [PDF]—earned Jones that right to vote.

For the remainder of his life, Jones continued working as a sexton and church usher. In 1900, he died and was buried in one of the cemeteries that had become his life’s work.

Incidentally, his death also marked the end of a local mystery: For nearly two decades, fresh flowers kept appearing on the freshly manicured grave of a woman named Sarah Smith. Nobody knew why the flowers appeared there or where they originated—until the decorations stopped appearing immediately after Jones’s death. Residents later realized that the grave belonged to the same Sarah Smith who, 56 years earlier, had invited John W. Jones and his friends into her home for butter, biscuits, and a good night’s rest.


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