From West Virginia (WV) Cyclopedia
Big Bend Tunnel is a tunnel on the mainline of the CSX Corporation's rail line in Summers County west of Talcott, WV. According to legend, folk hero John Henry was killed in a contest with a steam-drill during construction of the tunnel through Big Bend Mountain.
Big Bend Tunnel is located near Talcott, West Virginia, a location about 10 miles east of Hinton, WV. The building of the tunnel was one of the largest construction projects by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) during the course of extending it's rail line through West Virginia. When completed, it was the longest tunnel on the C&O mainline.
"Big Bend" is a name for a section of the Greenbrier River where the river literally makes a big bend around Big Bend Mountain. The distance around this u-shaped bend in the river is about a eight miles. At this point, The C&O's surveying crew chose to avoid this lengthy bend by building a tunnel through the mountain.
The building of a tunnel of more than a mile and a quarter in length was quite an undertaking considering the technology available in the early-1870's. Crews found the hard, faulted shale of Big Bend Mountain resisted drilling and blasting. Once exposed to air, the shale would quickly become brittle, promptly cracking and crumbling into pieces. Recurring rock falls during construction of the tunnel killed many workers and mules used for haulage. An incredible amount of rock, totaling 22 millions pounds, fell in one huge fall near the east end of the tunnel.
The construction of the tunnel was begun in 1870. The newspaper, The Border Watchman, of June 6, 1872, reported that construction crews broke through the mountain on May 31, 1872. In the latter part of 1872, the first train passed through the tunnel. However, it was not until 1873 that work was fully completed. In February of 1873, the first through freight train passed through the tunnel.
Although the tunnel was lined with timbers, recurring rock falls continued to be a problem for an entire decade following the tunnel's completion. In 1873 (some sources state 1876) an entire train crew was killed by a massive rock fall in the tunnel. To curb the falls, the C&O soon began a project to line the tunnel with brick, a project that took ten years and more than six million bricks to complete.
Map: Big Bend Tunnel and Talcott Vicinity
The Ghost of John Henry
Eight-foot bronze statue of John Henry, completed by Charles Cooper in 1972, stands above the east portal of Big Bend Tunnel
During the years when the tunnel was being lined with brick many workers claimed to have seen or heard the ghost of John Henry inside Big Bend Tunnel, and to this day rumors circulate about the ghost of John Henry haunting the tunnel that supposedly took his life. Early residents of the Talcott area were said to have seen and heard John Henry's ghost in and near the tunnel not long after its completion in 1873. In some accounts, the eerie sounds of Henry's hammer striking steel could be heard coming from within the tunnel. Others persons reported that ghostly images of the famous steel driver appeared just inside eastern portal of the tunnel. The ghost was often reported to have two hammers in its hands and would swing in alternating motions as if driving steel. As late as 1883, the C&O was reported to have had difficulties in recruiting workers from the local area for the job of lining the tunnel with brick. Work stoppages occurred repeatedly when workers thought they heard the sound of John Henry's hammer driving steel or when sightings of John Henry's ghost were reported by workers.
One account of the ghost of John Henry was reported in the book "Ghost of Southern Mountains and Appalachia," written by Nancy Roberts. The following is based on the description of a ghostly encounter in Robert's book:
Alfred Owens, a lifelong resident of the area, was a brick mason on the crew hired to line the Big Bend Tunnel with brick. One afternoon, while working alone in one section of the tunnel to finish one section of the brickwork, Owens heard a noise. At first he paid no attention to it, thinking the sound came from a rock falling or perhaps a rat scurrying through the tunnel. Owens went back to his work, giving the no further regard to the sound. But within a few moments, the sound started again. This time the noise Owens heard was series of steady clanging sounds, sounding much like steel being tapped.
Owens looked in the direction of the sound and was startled to see a shadowy figure just a few feet away from him near the portal of the tunnel. As he carefully inched towards the figure, he could see the silhouetted outline of a man he could see the arms of the figure swinging in sequence as if driving steel. At this point Owen stood frozen in place, too frightened to move, perhaps because he was beginning to associate this ghostly image with the legendary steel driver, John Henry. As Owen stood petrified by fear just a few feet away from the figure, suddenly a rock became dislodged from overhead. As the rock fell striking him on his shoulder and Owen jerked in reaction he lost his footing and slipped on the wet floor of the tunnel. Owen fell forward landing at the feet of the apparition. Owens was almost to frightened to raise his head to look up, but when he gathered enough courage to do so, the mysterious figure had disappeared. That night Owens visited Banks Terry, a resident of the local area who had worked with John Henry, to tell Terry of this strange thing that he had witnessed.
1872 photo showing construction of east portal of Great Bend Tunnel
East portal of Great Bend Tunnel (also known as Big Bend Tunnel)
Big Bend Tunnel Historical Marker at John Henry Park
CSX train emerges from the present-day Big Bend Tunnel (also known as Little Bend Tunnel)