Talcott, West Virginia – Through a wall of granite hammer strikes ring out, echoing off stone. Grunts of effort can be heard, and when people reach the end of the tunnel, they feel pain. No matter who they are, they’ve heard the story. To ignore such a tale would be to ignore one of the greatest heroes of the United States. And while, to many, his tale is one tall enough to be considered mere folklore, to others his is a story of triumph of the human spirit, and such is the stuff of which legends are made.
When I was a kid, we had to learn folklore in school. Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill joined alongside real heroes like Davey Crockett and Buffalo Bill Cody to paint the picture of a young land where anything could, and often did, happen. Among those stories was one that we could never decide if it was true or not, but it became one of my favorites. The story of John Henry, the steel-driving man. But now, it seems, there’s a new part to the legend, one that places US folklore squarely in the path of the paranormal.
As the legend goes, when the land was young and railroad companies still used actual people to lay their tracks, a rail line came to a mountain in West Virginia. They needed to get to the other side to reach their destination, so they decided to go through the mountain, and advertised that they needed steel shakers and hammer men to complete the task. Men flocked to the site, all drawn for the hefty pay scale of $1.25 a day.
Just before they started work, a salesman appeared with a steam-driven hammer. He explained that for a relatively low cost, the rail company could purchase the gizmo, break through in half the time, and not worry about silly things like paying all those workers. The workers protested, but with no real advantage to the company, all seemed lost for them. But then a lone black man, tall in stature and full of muscle, stepped forward and laid down a challenge. Him versus the machine, winner take all. If the machine made it through the mountain first, the company would buy it and all the workers would be out of luck. But if he made it through first, the rest of the labor would be done by men. The man’s name was John Henry.
According to legend, John Henry was larger than life from birth. Reputed to weigh a ridiculous 33 pounds at birth, he’s also often depicted as being born with a hammer in his hand.
Everyone thought the idea of a race to be a grand one, so they agreed. On the day of the race, John Henry appeared with a twelve-pound sledgehammer in each hand and went to work. According to legend, he beat the steam-hammer but died of exhaustion as the salesman admitted defeat. Songs and stories were told about him, and he drifted into the realm of legend.
Or did he? While most of us that heard the songs and stories believed him to be a mythical representation of the working man, or even of the strength of the black man, most of us never dreamed that such a fanciful tale could possibly be true. But then, that’s what researchers and scholars are for. Associate Professor of History Scott Reynolds Nelson of the College of William and Mary believes that not only was John Henry real, but that he knows exactly the tunnel in which he died.
John William Henry was a black prisoner in Virginia who was leased by the warden to work on the C&O railway in the 1870’s. Further research by railroad historian Roy C. Long tracks Henry to the tunnel where, it seems, the race actually did take place. And while most of their evidence is anecdotal, there’s one person who, it seems, people might be able to ask to clear up the mystery: John Henry himself.
Whether it is actually the ghost of John Henry who haunts the Big Bend Tunnel or not, the fact remains that nearly a thousand men perished in its construction. Breathing in the dust killed many, as did rock slides and shafts that were poorly constructed. There was a slag pile at one end of the tunnel upon which black workers who died were thrown like discarded kindling. Many workers refused to work the tunnel after Henry’s death, claiming they’d seen the man himself, a sledgehammer in each hand, stalking about the tunnel as if he were going back to work. Many claimed to hear the sounds of his hammers striking the steel “shaker bars” that he used to break up the stone. To this day, many who visit claim to have either seen John Henry, heard his mighty hammer strikes, or both.
The grave of John Henry is suspected to be an unmarked one near the old prison. According to the old song, he was buried near the old penitentiary morgue, which the convicts called the “White House.” Today the tunnel is marked with a large plaque that mentions the mighty battle, as well as an 8-foot bronze statue (some believe it to be life-sized) of John Henry. While some debate whether this tunnel or the Coosa Tunnel near Leeds, Alabama, is the real site of the race, tradition (and the original folk song) place the battle here, and that suits locals just fine.
The Great Bend Tunnel closed to regular use in 1974, moving all traffic to its parallel sister tunnel (thought to have been dug by the steam-hammer), the Big Bend Tunnel. And while it is a dangerous place, it’s right out in the open where people can easily find it. The best time to visit, however, is during John Henry Days, during the month of July, when the town holds a festival that features bands, a fun-run, food, and games, all celebrating the life of an American legend.
See you in two weeks!
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