West Virginia Hillbilly
John Henry - Man Or Myth
By James Edward Satterfield
April 28, 1984
John Henry - Man Or Myth
By James Edward Satterfield
They call it Big Bend Mountain. If one climbs to the top of Keeney's knob the view of this red shale outcropping in the heart of the Allegheny Mountains is spectacular. Near its base rests the tiny village of Talcott. Close by its precipitous flanks flows the rock-strewn Greenbrier river, banks bordered with hardwoods of Oak and Maple with an occasional evergreen adding to the. color. From here we can see the prominence of the mountain whose bulk forces the hard charging river to alter its southwesterly course in a wide sweeping bend to the south before turning northwestward to join the New River at Hinton, Summers County, West Virginia. It is here that our tale begins and ends.
When the survey crews of the newly organized Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad struggled down the Greenbrier valley in search of a route to the Ohio River in the late 1860's, they faced a choice of recommending a route paralleling the river around the great bend or tunneling through the mountain. The former route was at least nine miles longer, but certainly the latter was more expensive. Little is known of the executive decision which chose to drill the tunnel in preference to the great bend route, but, one thing is certain. That certainty is that the surveying crews were unaware that here in the bowels of this mountain would be born one of the legends, not only of railroading, but of all America. That legend was John Henry.
The question of whether John Henry and his legendendary feats were fact or merely legend has occupied the time of a great many scholars who have researched, investigated and probed virtually every source of information. Some of these are Dr. Guy B. Johnson, late professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina; Professor Louis Chappel, Associate professor of English at West Virginia University; Dr. Margaret Walker, Yale series Post award winner, a distinguished negro historian at West Virginia State College, now reported to be director of the Institute for Study of History, Life and Culture of Black Peoples at Jackson State College, and: perhaps foremost, Virginia Steele, a West Virginia author who, in a compilation entitled the "Legends of John Henry," utilized all the previous sources as well as the morgue files of the Charleston Gazette, the Washington Post, the Monroe Watchman, the Hinton Mountain Herald, as well as such illustrious tomes as "Tunneling, Explosive Compounds and Rock Drills," by Henry S. Drinker, a fifteen pound book published in 1878 and often used as source material at Big Bend.
Was John Henry fact or fiction? Utilizing all this diligent work let us fit as many pieces of the puzzle together as time and space will permit and allow each one to make his own decision. The steam drill had only been recently invented in 1870 when the C & O began to drive the Big Bend Tunnel, or as it was then known, the Great Bend Tunnel. While the drill was available, it was essentially a new gadget, not adequately tested in the minds of management and initially during construction the contractor chose hand drillers for driving blasting holes in the hard rock. An answer for this may be found in Mr. Drinker's previously mentioned tome wherein he says . . . "This was a rock not amenable to a steam drill, if it had, as early ones did, a straight bit." A year or two later it was learned that a cross or "Z" shaped bit had an advantage in such rock. (Red Shale, extremely hard, but which deteriorates when exposed.) It was suggested that the drill was tried and discarded in favor of hand drilling. This would necessitate the hiring of men to drive hand drills and this fact is substantiated by C & O records. Such records further confirm that a steam drill was introduced to the project early in 1872, probably due to the improvement in bits. We know therefore that there were steel- driving men and a steam drill at Big Bend. Was one of the men John Henry?
Dr. Johnson's search, conducted in 1928, produced some interesting data on John Henry. The C & O, to whom he had gone seeking information, referred him to one Mr. Waugh of Orange, Virginia. Mr. Waugh was a retired employee of C. P. Mason and Company, Staunton, Virginia, builders of the steam drill allegedly used at Big Bend. Mr. Waugh responded that "Big Ben," as he knew the tunnel, had been driven by hand during it's early stages. There was a rivalry between the Irishman and Negroes who worked there. One Mike O'Leary, a solid citizen of the "auld sod," held the championship as the best "hammersmon" for several years. He allegedly was defeated by John Henry about the time the steam drill was introduced. The Hammersmon did not take kindly to the steam drill and made every effort to down it, according to Mr. Waugh. They selected two of their best men to drive against the drill during a two day test wherein each worked twelve hours against the drill which was to run twenty-four hours. Mr. Waugh continued, stating that "John Henry drove against the drill for a full twenty-four hours and bested it by inches. When the contest was over he was carried away to his shanty nearby in a state of collapse and died that night. Mr. Waugh admitted that he did not see the contest but the story was told to him by C. R. Mason, manufacturer of the steam drill. "I was a young man at that time ...and have every reason to believe the story was true."
In 1925, Professor Chappel interviewed Pete Sanders, an elderly negro, living in Fayetteville, West Virginia. Pete, along with a number of his race, worked on the Great Bend Tunnel He said..."I didn't drive no steel in Big Bend Tunnel. Uncle Jeff and Alek did, though, and saw John Henry drive against the steam drill and died five minutes after he beat it down. They said John Henry told the shaker how to shake the steel to keep it from getting fastened in the rock as he couldn't turn it. He told him to give it two quick shakes and a twist to make the rock dust fly out of th' hole."
Virginia Steele, in an article in "Wonderful West Virginia," states that Richard Dorson, Professor of History at Indiana University, was the author of the most definitive work on the legend. His work, entitled "The Career of John Henry" was done on a promise to Louise Bascom who published the Journal of American Folklore in North Carolina. However, his search to substantiate the legend ran afoul of another figure by the name of John Hardy who performed legendary feats in the coal fields. According to Ms.Steele, the two were thought to be the same man until Professor Chappel proved John Hardy's existence from records showing he was hanged for murder in Welch, West Virginia. Needless to say there was much confusion and the desire to substantiate the legend of John Henry spread far and wide.
That desire was evident when W. C., Handy the famous negro "Father of the Blues," wrote Professor Chappel in the late 1920's. He had heard the tune as a boy in Alabama and written his Blues, An Anthology, in which he depicted John Henry as a riveter.
According to Ms. Steele, if one were to visit Talcott, now only a little larger than when established by the C & 0 as a base for drilling Big Bend, the local people will talk to you about John Henry with a tantalizing historical vagueness that surrounds the legend. Ross Evans, a retired C & O employee, whose father and mother cooked for the tunnelers, remembers his mother making sure he would be home before dark by threatening him that Polly Ann, John Henry's wife, would get him in the woods or if he walked past the tunnel entrance. His mother's contention was that Polly Ann was murdered and was "the first murder buried in the old graveyard on the hill." One can imagine the effect the spectre of Polly Ann may have had on a small boy.
Ms. Steele's account adds a further story by Lester N. Lively from a brief history compiled by him of Summers County. Mr. Lively says . . . "according to the superstitions of the day it would bring bad luck for anyone else to use the tools of John Henry, especially those he had used on the day of his death. So it was that the hammers and steel were taken to number three shaft and hurled to the bottom." Continuing, Mr. Lively relates that this was confirmed in 1932 when considerable repair work was done on the old tunnel and a concrete floor poured. Directly under the number three shaft there was a soft spot in the dirt of the floor. The dirt was excavated to a depth of 18 feet which would indicate the shaft had extended far below the floor to permit the installation of hoisting equipment. The hammers and steel alleged to have been used by John Henry on that fateful day were found embedded in this dirt fill. Mr. Lively further related that a visiting woman from Texas "vehemently declared that it was in Texas where John Henry performed the marvelous feat." The author, having been born in West Virginia, and having lived for many years in Texas, has naturally divided loyalties on the subject.
In her extensive search, Ms. Steele found that one Dr. Margaret Ballard, then recently retired from her medical practice and living in Monroe County, West Virginia, was a local historian of considerable note. Dr. Ballard reported in the Monroe Watchman, on July 30, 1979 an account of the tunnel building. She noted that the deaths that occurred on the site were rarely mentioned, although great rock falls, fights among workmen, and celebrations were reported. There were probably good reasons for not reporting the deaths since contemporary records show that the work was extremely dangerous. If this fact leaked out it would deter the contractor from hiring men for the task. It is reasonable to assume that the fact John Henry's death is not recorded in the records of Summers County stems from the practice of concealing the death of relatively anonymous negroes and Irishmen who made up the crews at Big Bend.
Uncounted tons of coal and merchandise have rolled through Big Bend tunnel since it was completed in 1873. Until 1950 the C & O utilized it's distinctive fleet of steam engines for the task. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the legend of John Henry was the big steam turbine engines named after him that were to power the stillborn "Chessie," that most magnificent of passenger trains. One wonders if the spirit of John Henry was present when the streamline prow of that magnificent steam machine, designed to stem the tide of dieselization, moved through the Big Bend tunnel. Perhaps his spirit laughed when it died an early death, a victim of internal combus[t]ion, since it was a steam engine of sorts that brought about his demise.
For fifty nine years after its completion the tunnel carried all the commerce of the Chesapeake and Ohio. In 1932 a parallel tunnel was bored through the mountain and the rock face of the old tunnel, as well as the new, were faced in concrete. Covered was the old legend "Great Bend" and both bore the name "Big Bend". Great or big, the steel rails of the Chesapeake and Ohio still thread the mountain as they have for over a hundred years and the great tunnel where John Henry gained his fame, and his entry into the folklore of America, still echoes with the sounds of countless steel wheels carrying the freighted necessities of Eastern Seaboard. Was he real or legend? We shall leave it to you to decide. One George Johnston of Lin[d]side, West Virginia, told Professor Chappel that his grandfather was present at the great contest, and his watch was used to time the race. Perhaps so. Whether John Henry's spirit remains in the Big Bend mountain is debatable, but I am told that it is not wise for one to linger long in the vicinity of the big bore after sundown. Rumor has it that John and Polly Ann like their privacy.
Many lay claim to the legend of John Henry. Whatever their claims, one thing is certain, as noted by Ms. Steele..."that the strength, the sweat, and the blood of hard-working black men went into the building of this country - every state that claimed him and every state that hasn't." This is the way Carl Sandburg said it in song:
"John Henry went down to de
Wid a twelve-poun hammer by his side,
He walked down de track but he didn' come back,
'Cause he laid down his hammer an' he died.
'Cause he laid down his hammer an' he died."