Railroad Legends – John Henry
Railroad Legends – John Henry
John Henry was about three days old, sittin’ on his papa’s knee. He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel; said,
“Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord. Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.”
There are many legendary figures in America, but few stand as tall as that of John Henry. The man who raced against a steam powered drilling machine and won. Many people think that the John Henry legend is only a myth, however, there is enough proof that a steel-driving man by the name John Henry did live. One of those pieces of evidence stands outside of Hinton, West Virginia at the former C&O railroad (now CSX) Big Bend Tunnel. There on top of the tunnel portal is a monument to this man, one of America’s greatest folk heroes.
First off, what is a steel-driving man anyways? Back in those days and right up until the middle 1950’s, one way of drilling into rock or coal in order to set a charge (blast) was to use a hand drill and sledge hammer. This was a two man job. One man, the shaker, would hold the drill with his hand turning it a quarter of the way around with each strike by a sledge hammer. Sledge hammers could reach 30 pounds. This was John Henry’s side of the job, for you needed to be a big strong man to drive a steel drill into rock. The legend says that John was 6 foot 4 inches and weighted over 250 lbs. Once a hole was drilled, a charge was place inside and set off, blasting the rock or coal away.
By most accounts John Henry was born during slavery in either Louisa County, VA or in Tennessee, during the last years of slavery. But like most of the Henry legend there are conflicting accounts of this man’s birth and death as well as the location of the race with the steam drill. One story puts the site of the race between him and the steam drill near Leeds, Alabama at either Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel on the former Southern Railway. Every year, on the third weekend of September, the city of Leeds has its annual Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration. However, as previously stated, West Virginia has also laid claim to the Henry Legend.
In December of 1868, the Virginia Penitentiary in Richmond loaded 14 convicts into a railroad car and sent them off to work on the tunnels that the C&O Railroad was building through the Alleghany Mountains. The name of one of those convicts was that of a John William Henry. However, according to this account, the records show that this John Henry worked on the Lewis Tunnel not the Great Bend Tunnel. However, the man responsible for building the C&O Railroad, Collis Huntington, loved pitting man power against steam power. This was especially true when it came to drilling, setting the stage for a race between man and machine. As legend has it, John Henry outraced the steam drill and then lay down and died. Some speculate today that if John Henry did race the steam drill in West Virginia then his premature death may not have come from exhaustion, but from the long term effects of drilling into sandstone. Sandstone dust consists of tiny silica partials that, when inhaled, can cut the inside of lungs. But once again, we do not know the real cause of John Henry’s death, or where he died.
So Leeds, Alabama may have the John Henry Festival, but it’s West Virginia that has the monument. So why is the monument to John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel and not at the Great Bend Tunnel? The answer is simple; the old Great Bend Tunnel has been taken out of service and replaced by the larger Big Bend Tunnel. Back in the early 1990’s we (JMJ Productions) were out filming the old C&O lines in West Virginia. One of the locations that we shot at was Big Bend Tunnel, not knowing anything about the monument. We were quite surprised to see the statue sitting on top of the portal. Up until that time I considered the John Henry story a myth, but that changed after my encounter at Big Bend Tunnel.
Like Casey Jones, John Henry is as much a part of America folklore as anyone. There are two types of music that songs about John Henry are sung in, the ballad and work songs (or hammer songs). The most well known is the Ballad of John Henry. Many musicians, from rock to folk have recorded these songs; they include Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson, and Van Morrison. However, one thing that John has over Casey is that the Norfolk and Western Railroad named their experimental turbine-electric locomotive after him. There was even a Liberty Ship built during World War II named the SS John Henry; however this was named for a Governor of Maryland not the steel driving man. Even though the ship was named after someone else, John did contribute to the war effort. His image was used in U.S. government propaganda as a symbol of strength, social tolerance, and diversity. His image was also invoked during the civil rights movement and the labor movement. In 1996 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent first class stamp of John Henry. The first day commemorative cancellation was held (you guessed it) at the east portal of Big Bend Tunnel; over 1000 people were in attendance.
John Henry lyrics
By Pete Seeger http://www.streetdirectory.com/lyricadvisor/song/uafcfc/john_henry/
John Henry was about three days old,
sittin’ on his papa’s knee.
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
said, “Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord.
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.”
The captain said to John Henry
“Gonna bring that steam drill ’round.
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job.
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down,
Whop that steel on down.”
John Henry told his captain,
“A man ain’t nothin’ but a man,
But before I let your steam drill beat me
I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord,
I’d dies with a hammer in my hand.”
John Henry said to his shaker,
“Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord.
Listen to that cold steel ring.”
The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine,
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord.
The steam drill only made nine.
John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire.
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord,
He laid down his hammer and he died.
John Henry had a little woman.
Her name was Polly Ann.
John Henry took sick and went to his bed.
Polly Ann drove steel like a man. Lord,
Polly Ann drove steel like a man.
John Henry had a little baby.
You could hold him in the palm of your
The last words I heard that poor boy say,
“My daddy was steel-driving man. Lord,
My daddy was a steel-driving.”
Well, every Monday morning
When the bluebirds begin to sing.
You can hear John Henry a mile or more.
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.
You can hear John Henry’s hammer ring.
So, was there a real John Henry? We will probably never know the whole story. Maybe it’s best leaving figures like John Henry alone, for it is good to have a legend that is bigger than life. Also, recently, as I was working on some tunnel portals on a current O gauge layout, I had a thought of putting a John Henry statue above one of the portals.
— Ray Del Papa
For more on John Henry, see ‘Ain’t Nothing but a Man,’ by Scott Nelson. He tells an interesting story about who the real John Henry was.