John Henry: A West Virginian Hero
February 1, 1976
John Henry: A West Virginian Hero
Whose [sic] your favorite legendary character?
Most people would probably select the giant Paul Bunyan, who with his blue ox Babe carved America's topography single- handedly.
Other popular figures would include the cowboy Pecos Bill, Old Stormalong, man- of-steel Joe Magarac, or, perhaps, John Henry.
John Henry. The name conjures up the image of a 10-foot-tall man swinging a 100- pound sledge through solid rock faster than dynamite can blow a sand dune. John Henry, steel driver extraordinare, surely one of our most popular legendary heroes.
Except, John Henry is more than a legend. He wasn't some mythical hero conco[c]ted by an imaginative laborer and given new adventures during stories told to the children as they gathered around a winter hearth.
Unlike Paul Bunyan, or Joe Magarac, or most of America's many popular legends. the story of John Henry is based in fact. He was, most historians agree, a real man.
Legend, of course, has embellished John Henry's tale during the past century. Perhaps he has grown an inch for each winter's worth of story-telling. The singers of his ballads, for reason of rhyme or drama, have added new tragedy and new adventures to his story. But still, at the core of the John Henry legend rests a real man.
The leading historians who delved into John Henry's career included Dr. Louis W. Chappell of West Virginia University. By searching records, and interviewing contemporaries of John Henry, they have been able to form a sketch of the real man.
John Henry was a black man, very possibly a former slave from the Virginias or Carolinas. He stood about six feet tall and weighed around 200 pounds - not Herculean dimensions - but he was a large man for his time and powerfully muscled.
In 1870, when John Henry came to Summers County, West Virginia, he was probably in his early 30s.
Like hundreds of others of newly freed blacks, who knew no other skills except the sweat of hard labor. John Henry was attracted to Summers County by the handsome wage of $1.25 per day the railroad was paying workers on its Big Bend Tunnel.
If, by the standards of the day, tunnel work paid relatively well, it was also extremely hazardous work. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad says a fire burned its records years ago, but between 200 and 300 men are believed to have died (out of the 1,000 working at any given time) during the three years it took to build the tunnel.
And for each man who died on the work site, another is said to have been "rolled" and murdered at the workers' camps, where a winning poker hand was often trumped with a bullet.
In this near barbaric setting, John Henry stood out. He is said to have been a friendly man, a popular individual in the camp. His strength and skill with the hammer, too, earned him widespread admiration. Some references, indeed, say that John Henry defeated a burly Irishman to become the camp's undisputed steel-driving champion. Since such contests were common and encouraged by the company, there is reason to believe John Henry would have proved his prowess.
A less plausible story suggests that John Henry was the only man who would hold a hammer in each hand and swing them straight and true without a break in his rhythm. Since the sledges used at Big Bend were commonly four feet long and weighing 10 pounds, this possibility seems doubtful.
Whatever his strength, there is no doubt that John Henry's job was extremely dangerous - uninsurable in the terminology of today.
Stretching one-and-one-quarter mile, the Big Bend Tunnel was carved with dynamite. To set the powder charges, the steel drivers put in the drilling holes which would hold the charge. For each charge, it could take as many as 50 holes, some of them more than 14 feet deep into the solid rock. No matter how hard one swung his hammer, he could dent the rock only a fraction of inch with each blow. Thus, a steel-driver was prided on how quickly he could swing his hammer.
John Henry, his hammer the fastest of all, worked at the "heading" of the tunnel. He was the one farthest from the safety of the outside. Because he worked at the "heading," his holes had to be drilled straight ahead. Not only was this more difficult than swinging the sledge at a drill aimed straight down, it was also more dangerous. A straight-on hole was more likely to cause a rock fall.
If a rock fall didn't kill you, a worker at Big Bend still had other worries. Many were killed by careless blasting, asphyxiation, a slow and tormented death by silicosis, or the fevers and other diseases which were always present in camp.
In this environment, John Henry lived. Here, too, be would become famous when he proved, in head-to-head competition, that a man could defeat a machine in driving steel.
There seems no doubt that John Henry actually competed, and won, against a steam drill.
The steam drill had first been introduced to tunnel building in 1866, three years before the Big Bend Tunnel was started. It was a more practical means of driving steel, costing only one-third as much as the use of hand labor.
Because of its low cost, the financially- pressed C&0 undoubtedly tested the use of a steam drill. But the drill had its drawbacks. A drill tended to "hang up" in cracks. And it was easily clogged by rock dust. While the drill had earlier proven successful in drilling limestone, the hard red shale of Big Bend was another matter.
The contest between John Henry and the steam drill is believed to have taken place early in 1870, at the east end of the tunnel.
Drilling contests, as we noted, were common and encouraged by the company. Liquor was passed among the spectators, who wagered heavily on the contest. And the winner received prizes.
Thus, it is likely that most of the men working on the east end of the tunnel were present for the contest. John Hedrick and Neal Miller were two who later recalled the showdown.
John Henry, says Hedrick, was winning the contest from start to finish, increasing his margin when the steam drill got hung up. Miller said, "John Henry beat the drill because it got hung in the seam of the rock and lost time."
Eyewitnesses generally agree that John Henry won the contest by five feet, drilling his hole 14 feet compared to nine for the steam drill. For many years, the contest's holes could be seen on the east end of the tunnel. Years later, workmen who arched the tunnel with brick remember covering the holes.
The contest, which may have lasted as little as 35 minutes or as much as two hours, probably earned John Henry $100.
It also earned him even more adoration from his fellow workers, who began to literally sing John Henry's praises in the work songs which continued unceasingly while the men labored. "This old hammer, rings like silver, this old hammer, rings like silver, this old hammer, rings like silver, shines like gold, shines like gold. Ain't no hammer, in these mountains, ain't no hammer, in these mountains, ain't no hammer, in these mountains, rings like mine, rings like mine" went one song- chant praising John Henry.
What happened to John Henry after the contest?
No one can say with certainity [sic] . Most of his fellow workers believe he died at Big Bend, in a rock slide or from fever. All of these sources deny that John Henry died of overexertion in the contest, a version sung in many ballads.
If he died, he was probably buried in a large fill near the tunnel's east end, where hundreds of men and mules shared a common grave. By 1883, stories were widespread that John Henry's ghost could be heard hammering away in the mountain. In fact, the railroad had a difficult time recruiting men to arch the tunnel with brick - most people feared the ghost.
Even today, John Henry's ghost is said to be inside Big Bend, hammering away. Whether it is a ghost, or merely the echo of dripping water, few persons venture near Big Bend Tunnel after dark.
It just wouldn't do to disturb the work of the best steel-drivin' man to ever grace the mountains of West Virginia.