John Henry: Folktale or Legend?

Some say folktale and others say legend but no matter your classification you can not discredit the value in the story of the larger than life figure, John Henry.

“John Henry”, the ballad, tells the story of a steel-driving man who died in his race against the steam drill at the Big Bend Tunnel, near Talcott, West Virginia, on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad around 1870.  Some think John Henry was a real person, a large African American man who traveled along the Atlantic Coast “driving a steel hammer” for the railroad.  

Construction of Great Bend Tunnel, under the Big Bend Mountain, began in 1870 and the lead contractor on the project was W.R. Johnson who paid some 800 to 1000 men and boys $1.25 a day.

As word quickly spread of this job opportunity, many ex-slaves and white Irish immigrants from the North Carolina and Virginia area came to Big Bend Mountain seeking employment.  Included in this migration of men and their families according to records was an ex-slave named John Henry.  

There has been interviews that says John Henry was a man of large stature.  Some accounts and records show that because of his skill set and large size he earned $1.75/day instead of the usual $1.25/day.

Whether or not we believe the ballad of John Henry, we shall never know the truth as a fire destroyed C&O Headquarters in the Late 1800’s.  Along with the headquarters, all documentation of Great Bend Tunnel’s costs, toll of lives, etc. went up in smoke.  

We do know though, a letter from W.R. Johnson, president of a coal company at Smithers by the same name, wrote Mr. Johnson that his father (Davidson) was an eye witness to a famous race.

The letter in part read: “My grandfather, Stephen Davidson, who worked on Great Bend Tunnel the entire time it took to build, was present and stood by and watch John Henry accomplish this unbelievable act of beating the steam drill.  And John Henry used two hammers; undoubtedly the handles were short.  Grandfather told me many times over about this feat.  He also told me that John Henry collapsed at the finish and was never able to work again.  The information I am giving you came from an eyewitness.” 

Whether this is true or not I will leave up to you the reader.  So we ask John Henry, Folktale or Legend?Image

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About Tuesday Morning Group

The Tuesday Morning Group, a faith-based collaborative network in Charleston West Virginia, serves as a bridge to constructive community changes through citizen education and political action to impact policy and program decisions.

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