One enduring character found in Southern folklore is John Henry. And like many such folk heroes, he is thought to have been a real person. However, the legend of the “steel driving man” that has been handed down through ballads and work songs leaves many unanswered questions.
The most basic of those mysteries is exactly where did the fabled contest with the steam drill that lead to his demise take place. Variously, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia have been the most consistent contenders for laying claim to John Henry’s legacy.
Unfortunately for Atlantan’s, the most likely scenario places that battle roughly a six-hour drive to the north near Talcott, West Virginia.
Although at least eight versions of the Ballad of John Henry have emerged over the years, ranging from a half dozen to as many as 23 stanzas, they all offer the same basic story.
John Henry was a steel driver for the railroad. His job was swinging a sledge hammer to drive steel drills into the rocks to clear the way for the laying of tracks. When a salesman for a steam-powered drill appears, a contest is arranged between man and machine. Though John Henry beats the machine in the 12-hour contest by drilling 14 feet to the machine’s nine, at the end John Henry dies, either of exhaustion or a stroke.
From historical accounts, the real John Henry was born a slave in either North Carolina or Virginia in the 1840s or ‘50s. He reportedly stood six feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, which was enormous for that period. After the Civil War he worked for railroads, where he exhibited enormous appetites for food and work, but also had a great baritone voice that he accompanied on the banjo. When he died in his 30s, he left behind a wife and baby.
But, did the contest ever really take place? We may never know for sure, but if it did it likely occurred on the Chesapeake and Ohio, or more simply, the C&O Railroad in southern West Virginia. That line was being pushed westward along the Greenbrier River through the Mountain State’s rugged terrain, until it reached Big Bend Mountain. With no way around, it was decided to drill through the 11/4-mile rock formation. It took three years for 1000 men to complete the Big Bend Tunnel in 1872. .John Henry and more than a few of the other men gave their lives in the effort.
Today the Big Bend Tunnel is still in use. Far above it near the top of Big Bend Mountain and beside West Virginia Route 3 is the John Henry Memorial. In 1972 for the centennial of the completion of the Big Bend Tunnel, the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan dedicated a statue to the man of legend. Additionally, Talcott now hosts the John Henry Days festival in July each year.
JIMMY JACOBS SOUTHERN OUTDOOR ADVENTURES