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Through the Lens: John Henry

By Staff | Sep 15, 2021

John Henry

Recently on our day trip through the southern West Virginia Mountains, we found ourselves passing through many unincorporated small towns. A gas station with a store and a post office were sometimes the only businesses in town. Houses with well-kept yards and a big pickup truck in the drive way. Towns so small when you see the town’s name on a sign, you may be able to see the back side of the same sign just ahead. A few minutes after you pass through, you have forgotten the town’s name.

Mary and I went looking for a small town to find the answer to a legend I have heard all my life. In school we were taught about legends and how they are part of the country’s history. They were a way people sitting around campfires told tall tales of men and women who help build our country. I believed them all to be just that, tall tales. Casey Jones, Paul Bunyan, Babe, Pecos Bill, Slue Foot Sue and Johnny Apple Seed. Each of those tall tales probably had a bit of truth in the beginning, but I believed they were all exaggerated as a way to enhance the telling of the story of how our country was built.

But a few years back, I came to believe that one of those tall tale legends may be more than someone’s imagination. That is the story of John Henry. I have come to believe John Henry was as real as any man who helped build our state. And his feat was so great, mere words could not describe his story. Over time it was told and retold, until it took on the status of a legend. That man and his legend have become part of West Virginia’s folk history. So, Mary and I went in search of Talcott West Virginia, population, 351. Home to a museum and a commemorative statue of John.

Was John Henry a real man, or created from American Folklore? One thing is for sure, I believe John Henry was an African American who worked in Summers County 150 years ago. These facts are what makes me believe John was real and not a figment of someone’s imagination. The story goes back to the 1870s. In southern West Virginia, coal was abundant and miners from around the country and across the oceans came to work in the mines. Transporting coal in those days to where it was needed was difficult. Wagons took days to transport coal through the mountains. Industrialists after the Civil War quickly realized railroads were the answer. That meant hundreds of miles of track had to be laid. Bridges had to be built over mountain streams. And tunnels would have to be dug through mountains made of rock.

Many who came to work were freed slaves. Tunnel contractors hired any man who was willing to work. It is not known if John was born in America or came seeking work from distant lands. Some say he was released from the penitentiary to work for the railroad. It is known he was a young man of average height and his hard life had given him muscles of steel. He took great pride in his ability to swing a sixteen pound sledge hammer and drive a steel drill bit into stone faster than any man alive.

Once his drill bit was deep into the mountains stone heart, blasters used a combination of nitro glycerin and saw dust to pack the bore hole. With a great roar the mountain gave up one more piece of its interior. The Big Bend Tunnel is nearly a mile and one quarter in length. It took over a thousand men nearly three years to dig the tunnel.

One day, the word began to spread that a new steam drill was going to make the boring process faster and easier. It also meant the men who bore the holes were in all likelihood going to lose their jobs. John told the tunnel boss that he wanted to challenge the steam drill to a contest so he could prove that men were better than machines.

The story goes that John and the steam drill began their contest. John had hopes along with the other men that if he won, it would prove men were dependable and superior to machines. John’s sledge hammer never missed a strike against the steel drill bit. The steam drill however was plagued with problems and was slow. Finally John’s bit holder probably cried out, “Johns done it. The bit is at proper depth.” The steam drill was still trying to accomplish its task.

Suddenly, John began breathing hard and great beads of sweat poured off him as he gripped his chest and fell to the ground. John had won the contest wanting to protect the jobs of the other men, but it cost him his life.

Well, at least that’s how I’ll tell the story. John was buried about a hundred yards south of the mine entrance. It was the place where men with no families and work animals were buried in the sand along the Greenbrier River. In 1872, the Big Bend Tunnel was completed and soon train loads of coal were moving out of the valleys toward the rivers.

Do you believe John Henry was a real person? Well, here is one more piece of information that might help to convince you. A man named Guy P. Johnson retold a story of a water carrier, Neil Miller’s account of the events. In 1929, Johnson published a book, titled John Henry, Tracking down a Negro Legend. In its pages he recounts the story of John and the events of the steam drill. Miller’s words and accounts in my opinion move John Henry from a folk legend to a real part of the state’s history.

Some years after the first tunnel was completed a second tunnel was built. Both tunnels were used due to the tremendous amount of coal being shipped out of the area. Then, in 1972 the original tunnel was shut down and only the new tunnel is used today.

In 1972 on the 100th anniversary of the tunnels completion, the people of Talcott decided that they should commemorate John with a statute to honor his contribution to the area. Today, it stands near the tunnel entrance.

When Mary and I visited the park, it was quiet with only the sounds of water cascading from the hill side and wind in the trees. John statue is large and imposing as his permanent stance hold his sledge hammer frozen in time. Near the old tunnels opening we peered inside cold darkness. The tunnel stretched before us into the emptiness deep inside the mountain. Mary commented about the cold air flowing from dark inside the mountain. Near the tunnels opening there are bore holes in the stone. I wonder, could one of them have been made by John Henry.

If you ever find yourself in Summers County near the town of Talcott, stop by and view the statue of John Henry. There are no concessions or souvenir stands nearby. It is just a statue at the entrance to the Big Bend Tunnel. Before you leave, decide for yourselves, was John Henry a real man or legend. Then listen to the wind and falling waters as they whisper, “Yes, John Henry was a steel driving man as I saw him Through the Lens.”