John Henry Legend

The John Henry Legend Is Closely Associated With The New River Gorge.

The John Henry Legend is almost certainly a story based on an actual event but the exact where, when and who have been lost over the years.

What is true is that the story is linked to the building of the railroad through a tunnel. It is the whereabouts that is in doubt.


The Statue Of John Henry At Talcott, West Virginia.

Two places lay claim to being the site for the legend of John Henry.

One is the town of Leeds, Alabama where the Columbus and Western Railway built the Coosa Mountain Tunnel and the Oak Mountain Tunnel around 1887.

The other, and more likely, claim is the Big Bend Tunnel of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway at the southern end of the New River Gorge near the town of Talcott, West Virginia.

So what exactly is the story of John Henry?

In every version of the tale he is always an Afro-American.A big strong man, skilled at the work he does, which is the job of a "steel-driver."

This is someone who swung a big hammer to cut blasting holes in the rock in which dynamite would then be placed to blow the way for a tunnel.

A steel-driver would have an assistant called a "shaker." He would be someone that would hold, and then turn the long metal spike that men like John Henry would drive into the rock to make these blasting holes.

But at the end of the 19th century, when the John Henry legend was born, mechanisation was appearing in many aspects of the working life. The railway owners had bought a steam hammer to do the job that John Henry and his fellow workers slaved so hard at every day.

This is where the story of John Henry becomes the symbol for the working class man. The wealthy owners are unfeelingly going to replace the working man with a machine so that they can make more money. The men would be out of work and broke, unable to do the only job they had ever known.

But John Henry will have none of it!

He knows that no machine is better than he is. He challenges the boss that he will race against the steam hammer and beat it. Man and machine work side by side in the tunnel and the man proves stronger.

A Close Up Photo Of The John Henry Statue At Talcott

Although the story of John Henry doesn`t quite say how the winner of the race is judged. But it is all to no avail. Having beaten the steam hammer and won the race, the strain proves too much and it kills John Henry. The machine wins in the long run as it goes on to replace the workers anyway.

That is the John Henry Legend.

How much of it is true? A man called C.C. Spencer claimed in the 1920`s that he had witnessed the contest at the site near Leeds, Alabama, but that claim is unsupported.

A professor of history called Scott Reynolds Nelson says that no steam hammers were used in the construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in the
New River Gorge.
  So maybe it didn`t happen there. 

The "John Henry Plaque" Outside The Big Bend Tunnel

However, the professor does say that the man could have been John William Henry. He was prisoner number 497 in the Virginia Penitentiary who had been leased by the warden to work for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the 1870`s.

Whatever the truth about the story of John Henry, the legend lingers on and many modern singers and songwriters have recorded songs to the memory of this American myth.

Both the town of Leeds, Alabama and Talcot, West Virginia lay claim to "owning" the John Henry legend. Indeed Talcott holds a celebration on a weekend after the 4th of July which they call the John Henry Days. There is also a statue of John Henry outside the town of Talcott.

John Henry will always live on as a symbol of the Afro-American working man.