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John Henry...the "Steel Drivin' Man"

Unlike most legendary figures, John Henry actually existed…and actually did most of the legendary feats attributed to him. John Henry was a recently-freed slave who showed up for work in 1870, on the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, WV. His size and strength, along with his capacity for hard work, soon became the talk of the town.
In those days, tunneling required that the holes for the dynamite be drilled by hand. It was hard, dangerous work. The holes were drilled with a star-drill, a long thick drill with a star-shaped bit on the end. One or two men held the drill while the driller hit the drill with a sledge hammer. After each stroke, the drill was rotated a half-turn. If the man wielding the hammer missed the bit, it could be rough on the man holding it. As the song says: "And John Henry said to his shaker, shaker why don't you pray. If my hammer misses this little piece of steel, tomorrow's gonna be your buryin' day…."

At the time John Henry was working on the Big Bend Tunnel, steam drills were being introduced…and were touted as being vastly more efficient than hand drilling. John Henry's co-workers refused to believe that any machine could beat their hero when it came to drilling through solid rock. An experimental steam drill was brought onto the job and a contest was arranged to settle the dispute.

As the story goes, John Henry drilled two seven-foot holes while the steam drill could only manage a single nine-foot hole. It seems that the drills had earned their reputation while drilling through hard sandstone. In the softer shale and slate of the Big Bend job, they tended to clog up easily and had to be frequently stopped and cleaned. There's every likelihood that John Henry did indeed beat the machine.

In the story, John Henry died as a result of his efforts in taking on the steam drill. It's considered more likely that he died in a rock fall sometime before the tunnel's completion in 1873.

Presently, a large statue of John Henry sits just off Route 3 overlooking the tunnel…which is still very much in use today.

To get to the Big Bend Tunnel from Fayetteville, WV, go south on US 19 and get on the WV Turnpike at exit 48 in North Beckley. Follow the signs to I-64 East, go about 18 miles and exit on Route 20 at Sandstone. Follow Rt. 20 to the town of Hinton and turn east on Route 3. The statue is about 10 miles outside of Hinton just before the town of Talcott.