The West Virginia. Cyclopedia

John Henry

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Detail of statue of folk hero John Henry at Talcott, WV
Big Bend Tunnel Historical Marker at John Henry Park
Eight-foot bronze statue of John Henry, completed by Charles Cooper in 1972, stands above the east portal of Big Bend Tunnel
C&O caboose at John Henry Park, on WV3, west of Talcott, WV
View from John Henry Park, looking east, towards Talcott, WV
CSX train emerges from Little Bend Tunnel
East portal of Great Bend Tunnel (also known as Big Bend Tunnel)

John Henry was a legendary folk hero of African-American descent who reputedly died of overexertion after winning a contest against a driller operating a stream-powered drill. The contest was reputedly engaged during construction of the Big Bend Tunnel, originally known as the Great Bend Tunnel, on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) in Summers County west of Talcott, WV.

The Legend of John Henry: Reality of Myth?

John Henry was immortized in (folk) song, "The Ballad of John Henry". Louis W. Chappell, an associate professor of English at West Virginia University, spent years conducting an exhaustive study of the many variations of the John Henry legend and ballad during the 1920s. Chappell, a dedicated folklorist, meticulously collected over 1,000 different texts and made phonographic recordings over 300 folk tunes.

The earliest known written version of the Ballad of John Henry was printed in about 1900. As is the case with most folk songs, as the years passed the words of the ballad were changed or totally new stanzas added to it. By the early decades of the 1900's, different versions of the ballad could be found in almost all states and in several different countries. About half of these new song variations linked Henry to areas other than the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. Various localities across the nation and even other countries claimed the right to call John Henry one of their own. Some of the localities claiming that John Henry's famous race against the steam drill took place within their boundaries included Alabama, Kentucky, Michigan, and even Jamaica .

Chappell made personal visits to every area that lay claim to the John Henry legend, from the Great Lakes to the West Indies. One by one, Chappell logically proved that it was impossible for these sites to have been the actual locations were John Henry's legendly race with the steam drill took place. For example, a tunnels in Kentucky and Jamaica were actually built many years after the date of the introduction of the steam drill.

Included in Chappell travels was a visit to the vicinity of Talcott, WV, where he interviewed a number of local residents who had worked on the Big Bend Tunnel project. Several persons emphatically stated that they had worked with John Henry. In addition to these eye-witness accounts, Chappell found that the date of the construction of this tunnel fits in exactly with the date of the introduction of the Burleigh steam drill [see also, the Steam Drill] in about 1870.

Chappell compiled his findings in a volume entitled John Henry, A Folklore Study first published in 1933. In this work, Chappell provides much evidence to support his contentions that John Henry was indeed a real person who had worked on the contruction of the Big Bend Tunnel as a steel driver. He also provided evidence that the race between the steam drill and John Henry did take place and that John Henry did win the contest. Chappell also provided much evidence that indicates that Henry actually survived the contest.

Chappell interviewed several people living near Talcott, WV who had worked on the construction crew building the Big Bend Tunnel. Many of these former workers described Henry and the events surrounding him with remarkable similarities. One of these persons, D. R. Gilpin, of Hinton, worked on the tunnel as a boy carrying water and steel for the workers. Gilpin remember John Henry, and described him as being, "about 6 feet tall, weighting 200 pounds." Gilpin noted that his brother-in-law helped Henry write letters to his relatives living in North Carolina.

Another person interview by Chappel, a Neal Miller, of Talcott, provided Chappell with a description of Henry quite similar to Gilpin's. According to Miller, Henry was, "a big rawboned man, 30 years old, 6 feet high, and weighed nearly 200 pounds." Miller also said that he remembered John Henry driving steel in the tunnel. Miller stated that he had witnessed John Henry's race with the steam drill, adding that it took place at the east end of the tunnel. Miller also remembered the name of the person who served as John Henry's shaker during the famous race against the steam drill as being Phil Henderson, a fellow known on the job as "Little Bill".

Miller insisted that Henry did not die after the contest was over, as is stated in the famous song about Henry. According to both Miller, John Henry continued to drive steel at the heading of the tunnel for some time after the contest. He stated that sometime after the famous race he was told by other workers that Henry had been killed by a rock fall that occuried when a blast being set off in the tunnel. These workers also told Miller that Henry had been buried one night along with another worker killed in the rock fall under the big fill at the east end of the tunnel. These workers also told Miller that about this same time a mule killed in the tunnel was buried near the same spot where Henry was laid to rest.

Gilpin's account also supports the contention that John Henry was killed some time after the contest by a rock fall in the tunnel. Gilpin stated that the last time he saw John Henry was when a rock fall caused from a blast fell on Henry. .

John Henry, as West Virginia's most famous folk hero, has not always received the type of treatment befitting a hero. Unfortunately, various types of distortions have occurred over the years.

Several local writers have confused and mixed the words of the Ballad of John Henry with the Ballad of John Hardy. These are two seperate and distinct songs about two entirely different persons. As a result of the blending of two different tales, these writers have mistakenly labeled John Henry as being a drunken gambler who was hung after murdering a man in a dispute over 25 cents.

Over the years, very little factal information has been published about John Henry. Many different writers have confused John Henry with John Hardy, a totally different person. The result of this liberal mixing of two tales has resulted in various articles and accounts being published that branded John Henry as an murderous outlaw . An "official" display of ignorance regarding John Henry occurried in 1963, when the State of West Virginia's Centennial Train presented information to thousands of visitors that stated (incorrectly) that John Henry was a coal miner. (source) Shortly after a statue of John Henry was erected to honor him, the statue was vandalized, broken off its base and and then dragged down the local highway behind a pickup truck by a group of local men.

One authority on the science of tunneling, Gosta E. Sandstrom, once stated, "The more I learned about the legend the more I became convinced that the ballad is a romanticized account of an actual event." Sandstrom found obscure and independent references that he felt established the authenticity of the John Henry legend. Sandstrom's book, Tunnels, was publishing in 1961 as a definitive work on the art and science of tunneling following 15 years of research.

The Fate of John Henry

According to most versions of the famous ballad, John Henry dies soon after the legendary contest ends. In one version of the ballad John Henry's death follows his hearing a "rolling" or "roaring" in his head, a graphic description of the sensation of a stroke.

John Henry went home to his good little woman,

Said, 'Polly Ann, fix my bed,

I want to lay down and get some rest,

I've an awful roaring in my head, Lawd, Lawd,

I've an awful roaring in my head.'

Other variation of the ballad, that appears to be later versions of the stanza above, states that John Henry simply "laid down his hammer and he died" because he "broke his pore heart"..

John Henry was hammerin' on the mountain,

An' his hammer was strikin' fire,

He drove so hard 'til he broke his pore heart

An' he laid down his hammer an' he died, Lawd, Lawd,

An' he laid down his hammer an' he died.

Despite the ballad's accounts of Henry's death Dr. Chappell uncovered evidence suggesting that John Henry actually survived the contest. Some of those interviewed by Chappell insisted that Henry was killed by a rock fall that occurred in the tunnel long at some time after the contest rather than dieing from overexertion or stroke.

One of the persons interview by Chappell, a Neal Miller, of Talcott, stated that John Henry continued to drive steel at the heading of the tunnel for some time after the contest. Miller said that sometime after the famous race he was told by other workers that Henry had been killed by a rock fall that occurred when a blast being set off in the tunnel. Miller was told that Henry had been buried one night along with another worker killed in the rock fall under the big fill at the east end of the tunnel. The workers also told Miller that at about this same time a mule killed in the tunnel was buried near the same spot where Henry was laid to rest.

John Henry was one of many workers who met their fate on the Big Bend Tunnel job. One in five workers were said to have died from injuries caused by rock falls during the construction of the tunnel. It was typical during the era that laborers who were killed by accidents were quickly buried in unmarked graves, usually at night under the cover of darkness. The supervisors of construction jobs normally did not want workers to be given a chance to gather and observe any sort of remembrance or services at the graves of their fallen co-workers. The supervisors rationalized that if workers didn't see the burials, they'd be less likely to start worrying about their chances of survival.

Although the ballad refers to John Henry being laid to rest in a "graveyard", many believe his body actually lays near the portal of the Big Bend Tunnel, near the sandy banks of the Greenbrier River.

They took John Henry to the graveyard,

An' they buried him in the sand

An' ev'ry locomotive come roarin' by,

Says, 'There lays a steel drivin' man, Lawd, Lawd.'

Says, 'There lays a steel drivin' man.'

The Job of a Steel Driver

In the words of the ballad, John Henry was "a steel-driving man". In more exact terms John Henry was a "steel driver", an job title that is probably very unfamiliar to most people. A common misconception is that a steel driver is someone that hammers spikes into railroad ties. But in fact, John Henry's job as a steel driver was completely different from the job performed by a track-worker who drove railroad spikes. As a steel driver, Henry worked at the working face or heading of the tunnel that was being bored through the mountain. He used a heavy hammer to strike a steel drill, driving and sinking the drill into rock in order to make a hole. In these holes explosive charges were later placed and exploded by other workers to facilitate the removal of rock from the bore of tunnel. The steel driver worked side-by-side with another worker, called a shaker or turner, [see Shaker] who held the drill being struck by Henry's hammer.

At the Big Bend Tunnel construction site, the steel driver would have been required to create anywhere from one dozen to four dozen holes in the face of the rock, with each hole being as deep as twelve feet. The task of driving steel was slow and methodical work, as with each blow the drill would advance only a fraction of an inch. It would take as many as six steel drivers as much as an entire day to drill the holes required for a single blast. After explosives was place in the holes and exploded, the heading of the tunnel was usually advanced only about ten feet. The blasted rock would be cleared out by hand by other works and loaded onto two-wheeled carts. Once a cart was full, it would be pulled out by mule power and dumped into railroad cars or dumped as fill near the entrance of the tunnel.

The job of steel driver required much physical strength and endurance as well as great skill. It is no easy task to hit a small piece of steel with a heavy hammer all day long without missing. The jobs of the steel driver and the shaker also required each man to develop a keen sense of the other's rhythm and timing. If either man's timing was off, the shaker could end up with a severely injured or crippled hand.

Once the steel driver started delivering his series of powerful percussive blows, he maintained a steady tempo until the hole was finished. Much like a long-distance runner who reaches his stride, the steel driver established and maintained a pace at which he could deliver his maximum physical effort with each blow of the hammer. In rock drilling contests observed and documented in the early-1900's, a constant 90 blows per minute was sustained by the steel drivers.

The shaker would strictly follow the tempo established by the steel driver. Following each blow, the shaker would slightly twist and turn the drill, giving it a quick shake to flip rock dust out of the hole. At 90 blows per minute, the shaker would have to complete both of these tasks in 2/3's of a second or less. He would then need to have the drill back in place and braced to receive the next powerful blow delivered by the steel driver. Adding to the complexity of the task of driving steel, the drills would become dull and require replacement. Replacing a drill was a feat accomplished by the shaker without breaking the steel driver's pounding rhythm.

As the drill dulled, the shaker would blindly hold out his free hand as a signal to the walker [see Walker] that a new drill was needed. The walker would hand the shaker a new drill and in between the steel driver's hammer strokes the shaker would snatch the drill out of the hole and replace it with a new one. As the depth of the hole became progressively deeper (up to 12 feet in depth), longer drills were used. The steel driver and shaker undoutably worked out some signal for the steel driver to "rest" for a few beats while the longer drills were changed out of the hole.

Each steel driver and shaker performed their jobs together with other teams of the steel drivers and shakers at the heading of the tunnel. It seems logical that these teams performed as an ensemble, with all of the team's hammer strokes following a unison rhythm. One witnesses who worked with John Henry said that Henry always sang a song when driving steel such as, "Can't you driver her, huh?" Henry's habit of singing probably helped the long work day to pass more quickly as well as helping the teams of drivers and shakers to maintain the steady rhythm their jobs required.

John Henry's Hammer

A good bit of controversy has centered around the type of hammer John Henry would have used. The statue of John Henry erected in his honor depicts him holding one long-handled hammer in both hands. However, most authorities insist that during the period of the 1870's steel driving was usually performed using a short-handled hammer. Henry s. Drinker, author of the book, Tunneling, was among those who supported the short-handled hammer theory. According to Drinker, one-hand hammers were the standard used on the C&O tunnel construction projects.

Some versions of the famous ballad about John Henry mention that him using a nine-pound or ten-pound hammer. Other versions of the song state that he used two twenty-pound hammers, swinging one in each hand, during the famous contest with the steam drill. Some of the men who worked with John Henry recall him swinging two short-handled hammers. However, Gosta E. Sandstrom, author of the book, Tunnels, believed that the simultaneous use of two ten-pound hammers would be something "which is beyond mortal man." Nevertheless, Drinker stated that a good steel driver could swing two one-hand hammers simultaneously if had good shaker. Presumably, the one-hand hammers Drinker was referring to were hammers lighter than twenty-pound.

The Steam Drill

There is a considerable amount of evidence that indicates that the steam drill used in the epic contest held at Big Bend Tunnel was a Burleigh automatic steam drill. Although the use of the Burleigh drill at the Big Bend site cannot be verified, there is much documentation of the use of the Burleigh drill on various tunneling projects during the 1870's, including at least one C&O tunneling project completed prior to 1878. A description of the steam drill used in the contest provided by an eyewitness to the event accurately matched the actual configuration of a Burleigh steam drill from the era. The date that the Burleigh drill was introduced accurately corresponds with the construction dates of the Big Bend Tunnel, from 1870 to 1873. According to the most accounts, the steam drill is said to have been brought to the Big Bend site as an experiment. This sort of experimental use of the drill at the site would be logical, due to the magnitude of the Big Bend construction project. The C&O would probably have been willing to try out any new construction method or tools that could potentially reduce construction time or costs.

There is also good reason to believe that John Henry could have beat the steam drill in the contest. Although the Burleigh steam drill was more powerful than any human it did have a tendency to clog on rock dust and to hang up on cracks in a rock. One of the eye-witnesses to the contest interviewed by Chappell stated that the steam drill got hung up in a crack during the heat of the contest.The steam drill's known flaw also corresponds to a line from the Ballad in which John Henry taunts the operator of the steam drill, saying, "Your hole's done choke and your drill done broke." Despite the steam drill's powerful advantage, the faulted shale rock of Big Bend Mountain apparently combined with the drill's shortcomings caused the steam drill to loose the contest to John Henry.