John Henry - The Steel Drivin' Man
Man or Myth?
The C & O Railroad built Great Bend Tunnel in the early 1870's. Over one mile of hard red shale that resists drilling but readily crumbles when exposed to air, was cleared through the Big Bend Mountain in Talcott, West Virginia. The tunneling by driving steel by hand into the hard rock was dangerous and reportedly one in five men were killed as tons of rock crushed down upon them. Was there a man among these steel drivers named John Henry? Did this John Henry race against a steam drill and die with his hammer in his hand as ballads portray? Research indicates more then likely . . . he did.
According to researchers, most notably Louis Chappell in his 1933 book: John Henry, a Folk Lore Study, John Henry did work for the C&O during the building of the mile long Great Bend Tunnel in the early 1870's. Chappell's research brought him to Talcott in 1925 to talk with men who knew John Henry. They had worked as young boys, carrying water and steel for the workers. Many of them recall a near six-foot tall, 200 pounty Negro named John Henry. That description is about as consistent as the reports get. Some said he was from North Carolina. D.R. Gilpin, from Hinton told Chappell, "I know that he was from North Carolina, for he used to get my brother-in-law, Pearce, to write letters fim to his people there". Some authorities say he was a newly freed slave from Virginia of deeper south.
Most of the men who talked to Chappell agreed he did compete with a steam drill. Neal Miller, in 1925 told Chappell that there was a wager of one hundred dollars between John Henry's foreman and the man with the steam drill.
Many reports say he could drive steel with a hammer in each hand. Varied reports dispute the weight of the hammers he used, some say a nine-pound and some say as much as a forty-pound hammer. According to a report in 1963 by historian Lester N Lively, when a concrete floor was poured in the tunnel in 1932, the hammer and steel said to have been used by John Henry was found in a dirt fill in the number 3 shaft. They had been thrown down there after the contest and John Henry's death, since superstition prevented anyone from using the hammer again. Lonnie Mann of Hilldale had a hammer that his father-in-law, John Tolbert, found at the tunnel that bears the initials J.H.
As to the manner of John Henry's death, Chappell's research discovers varying reports. D.R. Gilpin said, "The last time I saw John Henry was when some rocks from a blast fell on him. I always thought he died in the tunnel." Neal Miller agreed, "he didn't die from getting too hot in the contest . . . The boys around the tunnel told me he was later killed in the tunnel . . ." He later told Dr. Guy Johnson of the University of North Carolina, "He took sick and died from fever. . ."Some legends say he died on the spot after the contest, while others say he went home to supper and died that night in his sleep.
Chappell's sources do generally agree that "John Henry was keen and full of good jokes and he could sing and pick a banjo better then anybody. . . He was a great singer and always singing some old song when he was driving steel."
A 1969 Washington Post article by Hank Burchard sums up the man and the myth dilemma:
The Story of John Henry has become the Legend of John Henry, as much chaff as wheat, as much nonsense as nostalgia. The search for the real John Henry becomes in the end, like Albert Schweitzer's quest for the historical Jesus, an act of faith. That John Henry lived seems beyond doubt. That he drove steel in Great Bend Tunnel in the early 1870's seems certain. That he drove steel against a steam drill and beat it seems likely. That he died from over exertion in the contest seems somewhat less likely, if wonderfully poetic.
But there is no doubt that John Henry is high among America's towering authentic folk heroes, symbol of the proud working man who would not yield his human strength and skill to the coming of the machine.