JOHN HENRY – A Steel Driving Man

John Henry is an African-American folk hero who symbolizes strength and determination. He is said to have worked as a "steel-driving man"—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in constructing a railroad tunnel.

The stories about John Henry are not just “tall tales,” for they are based on the life of a real person, a former slave working on the railroads after the Civil War, but time has blurred fact and fiction.

In the stories, John Henry, a strong “steel-driving man,” accepted the challenge of trying to outperform a steam-powered drill. Swinging a heavy hammer in each hand, he beat the machine but died soon after — some say from exhaustion, others say from a broken heart on realizing that machines would replace muscle and spirit. 

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The story of John Henry is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. Below is a version the John Henry folk song, sung by Harry Belafonte.

Historial Research

Guy B. Johnson, a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, investigated the legend of John Henry in the late 1920s. He concluded that John Henry was a real person who worked on and died at the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's Big Bend Tunnel. The tunnel was built near Talcott, West Virginia, from 1870 to 1872 .

The original Chesapeake and Ohio railroad company line was constructed, following the New River through the Gorge, between 1869 and 1872. This line is very active today with dozens of daily runs by CSX railway corporation coal and freight trains, and Amtrak's Cardinal passenger line.

Workers posing in front of unknown tunnel circa 1880

The C&O railroad was built primarily by two groups of working men, thousands of African-Americans recently freed from enslavement, and recent Irish Catholic immigrants; both groups anxious to begin new lives for themselves and their families as American citizens.

Working from both ends of the state the workers spent three years digging and grading the rail bed, hand drilling and blasting the tunnels, and building the bridges and laying the tracks. Using hand tools and explosives, with horses and mules helping with the heaviest loads, these men literally carved the pathway for the railroad through the rugged mountains by hand.

One of the greatest legends of world folklore was born from these workers and their enormous task; John Henry "The Steel Driving Man".

Historical research supports John Henry as a real person; one of thousands of African- American railroad workers, specifically a steel driver, half of a two man team specializing in the hand drilling of holes up to fourteen feet deep into solid rock for the setting of explosive charges. Steel drivers swung a nine pound hammer straight and strong, all day, everyday, pounding assorted lengths of steel drill bits held by their steady and trusting partners, called shakers, who placed and guided the drill bits, and after every strike of the hammer turned or "shook" the bits to remove the pulverized dust. Together these teams of perfectly choreographed industrial artists would with concentration and muscle lead the way, boring the mile long tunnel through Great Bend Mountain and onward along the pathway throughout the length of New River Gorge.

A sign by the C&O railway line near Talcott, West Virginia.

Some versions of the song refer to the location of John Henry's death as "The Big Bend Tunnel on the C. & O." Professor Johnson visited the area around 1929 and found several men who said that they were boys of 12 or 14 when the tunnel was begun and that they could remember seeing John Henry, a large, powerful man. Although most of these men had heard of but not seen the famous contest between John Henry and the steam drill, Johnson ultimately was able to find a man who said he had seen it.

This man, known as Neal Miller, told me in plain words how he had come to the tunnel with his father at 17, how he carried water and drills for the steel drivers, how he saw John Henry every day, and, finally, all about the contest between John Henry and the steam drill.

"When the agent for the steam drill company brought the drill here," said Mr. Miller, "John Henry wanted to drive against it. He took a lot of pride in his work and he hated to see a machine take the work of men like him.

"Well, they decided to hold a test to get an idea of how practical the steam drill was. The test went on all day and part of the next day.

"John Henry won. He wouldn't rest enough, and he overdid. He took sick and died soon after that."

Mr. Miller described the steam drill in detail. I made a sketch of it and later when I looked up pictures of the early steam drills, I found his description correct. I asked people about Mr. Miller's reputation, and they all said, "If Neal Miller said anything happened, it happened."

Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry, and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along West Virginia Route 3 south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel.

Statue of John Henry, Talcott, WV
Statue of John Henry, Talcott, WV

Historians also believe that John Henry died at the Great Bend Tunnel, one of the estimated hundreds of workers dying in rock falls, malfunctioning explosions and "tunnel sickness(the excessive inhalation of dust), who now rest in unmarked graves at the tunnel entrance below the statue of John Henry, who still stands as their champion.

Although, the historical record indicates John Henry was a real life person, animations and movies have depicted John Hero only as a tall tale or mythical figure. John Henry the movie is entertaining, even though it was created under the assumption that John Henry a legend.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series

 Sections republished under license from Wikipedia and the National Park Service.