John Henry

Hinton Daily News
December 24, 1969

John Henry Story at Talcott is Revived

By Hank Burchard
The Washington Post

Talcott - The John Henry of whom Americans sing was no black Paul Bunyan but a real man who drove steel here a century ago to build what was then the longest tunnel in North America.

He was one of a thousand men and boys who worked like dogs and died like dogs driving the Big Bend Tunnel through more than a mile of treacherous red shale as the Chesapeake of Ohio railroad pushed west through the mountains to link the shipping lanes of the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio-Mississippi.

All the hundreds of his fellow workers who were killed by fever, falling rock and bungled blasting died unsung, but John Henry was raised to immortality by the balladeers who preserved the oral traditions of Appalachia.

In the 50 years since the ballad made its way out of the mountains into the rest of the country, ignorance of the story it tells and the hacks of Tin Pan Alley have combined to distort John Henry into a tall tale and to unman him.

Get this straight right off: Her name wasn't Polly and she didn't drive steel like a man when John Henry took sick. Women didn't go into the tunnel, and if one had she would have been too busy to drive steel.

The women of the wilderness work camp stayed down the road a piece, resting up during the day against the return of men who were superstrong or couldn't make it, sweated and bled and cursed and tore at the mountain from dawn to dark and took their pleasure in women and whisky with the ferocity of those who are likely to die tomorrow. There were some swinging broads who followed the railroad through the mountains, but they weren't swinging hammers.

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. You believe what you want to believe, being as honest about it as you can.

That John Henry lived seems beyond doubt. That he drove steel in Big Bend Tunnel in early 1870 seems certain. The drill and beat it seems likely. That he died from overexertion in the contest seems somewhat less likely, if wonderfully poetic.

But there is no double 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.

In the current social context he is much more than that. He is the black man, probably a Virginian only a few years out of slavery, who met on less than equal terms but still mastered both his fellow white laboring men and the clever technicians who were inventing machines to replace the skilled workman.

And, as the many ribald variant verses of the ubiquitous ballad underscore, he is a potent Freudian symbol, hammering away in the tunnel, making Mother Earth yield. In early versions of the ballad, and according to local tradition, he kept a blue-eyed woman. The later, scrubbed versions either tuned him white or made her dress blue and skipped the eyes.

More than one researcher has dealt somewhat nervously with this aspect of John Henry, which blends so neatly with our cultural fixation about the black man's sexual prowess. And it may be that this is the electric force that has kept him so vibrantly alive.

The story is classic and simple tragedy. The hero, as in the ancient Greek plays, foretells his fate and then acts it out without flinching: a man must do what he can do and must ry what he knows he cannot.

The setting was dramatic. This was wild county in 1870, the last wolf having been killed only five years before on nearby Keeney's Knob. The first explorer known to have traversed what is now Summers County was Selim, an Algerian, who struggled through these Allegheney Mountain spurs in the mid-1700s, losing all his equipment and most of his clothes in the process. He later became a Christian and, in the end, went crazy.

A century later it took surveying parties three years to map out the line of the railroad which grew out of George Washington's James River Canal Co. It was the heyday of the railroad barons who laced the country with steel track just as fast as they could buy legislatures, manipulate stocks, and flim-flam widows and orphans. Not for nothing did the expression "I was railroaded" pass into the language.

By The Time the surveyors reached the Big Bend of the Greenbrier River, where the stream dashes against Big Bend Mountain and turns sharply aside to meander around the ridge for 10 miles before returning to within a mile of the starting point, they probably were willing to try anything to shorten the trackage, even a tunnel project more than bold than any ever attempted by Americans, Nineteenth century builders had boundless faith in the ability of science to overcome obstacles.

Better they should have gone around Big Bend Mountain is composed of hard, faulted shale that resists drilling and blasting but then cracks and crumbles quickly on exposure to air. The technology of 1870 wasn't able to deal with the deadly rock, which from time to time thundered down on the workmen (one fall near the east portal amounted to 22 million pounds' and killed at least one in five.

A tunnel worker who escaped serious injury was lucky indeed, and the toil included death by disease and from asphyxiation of men working by the orange smoky light of lamps charged with heavy blackstrap oil.

Many of those who died - including, some say, John Henry - were dumped into the huge fill at the east portal, along with mules that succumbed from pulling heavy cars loaded with the rubble mucked out after each round of black powder or dualin, an early form of dynamite that was only a little less "tetchy" than pure nitroglycerin.

John Henry's job was to drill holes for the blasting, which required from one dozen to four dozen holes sometimes as deep as 12 feet for each round. Since the drills of the time would sink only a fraction of an inch into the rock with each blow, it would take a half dozen steel-drivers as much as a full day to drill the holes for one blasts, which would advance the tunnel heading perhaps 10 feet. After each "shot" the rock would be mucked out by hand and loaded in small hopper cars to be hauled away.

The steel-drivers were the princes of the working crews, and John Henry was king of them all. Most accounts describe him as about six feet tall and 200 pounds, a big man in those days. He is said variously to have been as black as coal, copper-colored, red, light brown, or almost white, but all agree that he was superbly muscled and an artist with his hammers. It is no mean feat to slam one hammer at the end of a 1/2-2 inch diameter drill, hour after hour and day after day, without missing. John Henry's ability to swing one in each hand is doubted by many, yet was supported by men who worked with him on the project.

One of these was Banks Terry, a lifelong resident of Talcott, who died some years ago on his 100th birthday. Terry as a young boy was employed at many odd jobs in the tunnel, and often told of watching John Henry. Terry said John Henry could drive steel straight ahead or down into the "bench" or core of the tunnel, or straight into the roof while standing on a powder keg, never tiring, never missing a stroke, singing all the while and wearing out drills as fast as they were brought to him for $1.75 a day.

After five generations of power tools it is virtually impossible for a contemporary American to conceive of such brutal, mankilling labor. If John Henry really did work himself to death against the steam drill, it was a merciful release.

By the accounts of those who knew him or knew of him, John Henry was a proud but friendly man, fair and forebearing in his dealings with his fellows in the raw and rough society of the labor camp. Usually in such camps a man's prestige was measured as much by his fists as by his ability, but our hero seems to have been no bully.

He narrowly escaped going down in history as a murder, thief, highwayman and general brigand. While John Henry was at work in the tunnel, one John Hardy, who also grew up to be big and black and bold - but bad - was playing with marbles in McDowell County.

As soon as he was big enough to pack a gun, Hardy began a career of murder and robbery which was finally cut off when he was hanged, at 28, on Jan. 19, 1894, within sight of the county jail at Welch, for the murder of Thomas Drews (because of a woman) at Shawnee Camp.

Of course, there was a ballad about John Hardy, and the similarity of names and general structure led the early musical historians of Appalachia to confuse the two. Since nearly all the heroic ballads were more or less similar in form and tune, verses about the steel driver became intermixed with those about the rogue.

John Henry's good name was rescued and his fame assured for all time by Louis W. Chappell, the late West Virginia University folk historian, who early in this century became fascinated by the legend and spent decades tracing it to the source.

He followed the reports of John Henry from New York to Jamaica and throughout the South, eliminating one fiction or exaggeration after another until he had dismissed the claims of all rivals and firmly established Big Bend as the site of the showdown between sinew and stream.

Here he found men still living who had worked in the tunnel and known John Henry and who vouched for the essential details of the story. Distracted only by a fierce rivalry with Dr. Guy B. Johnson of the University of North Carolina - who was the only black historian ever to investigate John Henry and who could never decide whether to honor or disparage him - Chappell built a case for John Henry that is as convincing as it is little known.

But try as he might, Chappell never was able to find the kind of documentary evidence that would have provided an ironclad clincher. The C&O claims that all records of the tunnel project, including the payroll vouchers and the engineers's reports that could have absolutely established what happened, where destroyed in a fire in Richmond at the turn of the century.

It is indisputable that the Burleigh steam drill, runner of the pneumatic drills that revolutionized mining and tunneling, was used successfully on other tunnels, including at least one of the 26 that the C&O drove before 1878. Since the speed with which blast holes could be drilled was the main factor that determined how fast a tunnel could be driven, the undercapitolized and overextended C&O could hardly have failed to try the Burleigh drill at Big Bend, most massive of all its projects. The faster the line could be opened, the faster the recovery of capital. Chappell interviewed a former tunnel workman who described the distinctive Burleigh drill accurately after 50 years of isolation in these hills.

If the steam drill was tried at the tunnel, could flesh and bones have beaten it? Could John Henry have driven 14 feet while the steam drill only drove nine? Sandstrom says yes, but not with two 10-pound hammers, "which is beyond mortal man."

At this point Henry S. Drinker comes to John Henry's rescue (in tunneling published in 1878) by saying that one-hand hammers were "standard" on the C&O projects. A good man then could swing two one-hand hammers simultaneously, if he had a fast and trusting "shaker."

A shaker also called a turner, was a nervy navvy who held the drill and turned it slightly after each blow, giving it a little shake to flip the rock dust out of the hole. The heat tempered steel available in those days dulled after a few minutes at most, and the shaker had to snatch it out of the hole and insert another between hammer strokes.

Consider then how trusting was Phil Henderson, or Little Bill, as John Henry's shaker has been variously called, who turned John Henry's steel while lying on his back holding it between his legs, or by standing against the rock face holding it crooked in his arm, or holding it close to his body (depending upon whether the drill was being driven down or sideways or up), with the hammer flashing by his groin or rib cage or his face.

As the drills dulled, the shaker blindly held out his hand to the "walker" (who walked the worn steels to a blacksmith at the portal and returned with reforged one), like a busy surgeon taking a scalpel from a nurse, to grasp the new drill. So fast were drills used up that most of the men and boys employed in tunnels were walkers. On a big project the drillers could use up thousands of steels a day. In some cases the drills were weighed, and the driller was docked for the weight of steel that was worn off the points, a weird work incentive.

But could John Henry have beaten a steam drill? The most common version of the story is that the contest lasted 35 minutes. Now the all time record for handdrilling was set at Butte, Mont., in 1912, when the Tarr Brothers, a double-pack (two-man) team, drove 59 inches through gunnison graphite in 15 minutes. If they had kept the same pace for 20 more minutes they would have driven 11 feet.

John Henry went a little farther than that - 14 feet - in rock that is much less resistant to drilling than graphite. The rate at which a drill sinks into rock is determined by how the point stands the punishment, how much force is applied and how fast. A hatful of steam can deliver more power than the strongest man, but the Burleigh drill had a particular problem in certain kids of rock. It tended to clog on rock dust and to hang up in cracks. A Big Bend tunneler told Chappell the steam drill hung in a crack, and the ballad says, "Your hole's done choke and your drill done broke," both of which are consistent with the drill's known weaknesses. This is not the kind of detail a balladeer is likely to have pulled out of the sweet mountain air.

If John Henry was there and he beat the steam drill, what became of him? The stanza that says "he laid down his hammer and he died" seems to be the Tin Pan Alley's revision of earlier verses that say he felt a "rolling" or a "roaring" in his head, staggered home and died in bed. Either word is a graphic description of the sensation of a stroke, according to a noted West Virginia cardiologist. Still, John Henry, at 30 or 35, was a little young and awful strong to have come to such an end. Testimony gathered by Chappell indicates he more likely died later in a rock fall or other accident or from a fever. The odds were one in five anyway, that he wouldn't come out of Big Bend alive, and actually much higher because he worked in the most dangerous section, the working face, or heading.

Chappell was impressed by the virtually unanimous opinion of local Negroes that John Henry's ghost remained in the tunnel, a belief said to have sprung up within days of his death and to have caused a work stoppage. The laborers said they could still hear John Henry's hammers ringing in the tunnel, but the captain demonstrated that it was only water dripping from the roof. Sure, Boss.

The superstition survived the explanation for at least half a century and even now - if one is sufficiently hyped on John Henry - it is difficult to convince oneself that one is alone in the Big Bend, even though there is no question of it, as they say.

Big Bend was a maneater long after it was finished and lined with timber. Repeated falls of rotten rock killed railroaders for a decade. In 1873 a major collapse wiped out a train crew and led the Summers County prosecutor to take the C&O to court for maintaining a deadly hazard.

The railroad first tried to take over the county government and install its own man, but finally gave in and arched the tunnel with more than six million bricks, which took 10 years.

The arching, or construction of ventilation works near the portals covered over what are said to have been the holes drilled in the contest, which apparently was held at or near the portal shortly after the driving of the tunnel began. If so, it obliterated that last physical trace of John Henry except for a roadside historical marker near the summit of Big Bend Mountain that refers skeptically to the tradition.

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West Virginia Archives and History