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John Henry untold story

Is John Henry a Legend or Tall Tale?

by Cynos - 28

John Henry is the protagonist of a well-known African-American folk ballad. It describes John Henry’s battle with a steam drill, in which he crushed more rock than the machine but died “with his hammer in his hand.” Writers and artists see John Henry as a symbol of the worker’s doomed struggle against the machine, as well as the Black man’s tragic subjugation to white oppression and defiance of it.


John henry untold story 2
Photo – BBC

The ballad of John Henry has some basis in fact. Steel drivers hammered steel drills into the rock to make holes into which explosives could be packed when the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad built the Big Bend Tunnel through the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia from 1870 to 1873. Because the modern steam drill was introduced to the South in 1870, it’s possible that Big Bend was used to test the efficiency of the two methods.

Although there were songs about John Henry, there were few stories about him, and he is not truly a folk hero like Paul Bunyan. Many Americans were familiar with the name thanks to Roark Bradford’s imaginative treatment in John Henry (1931). Despite the fact that John Henry has been depicted in numerous works of art and has inspired film and television plots, the story is still largely told through song, with versions recorded by folk, blues, and country artists.

Untold History of John Henry

Is John Henry a Legend or Tall Tale?
Photo – The New York Times

Thousands of people were employed during the construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway along the Greenbrier and New Rivers in the early 1870s. Many of these men were African Americans who had moved to West Virginia looking for work. Railroad jobs were labor-intensive and low-paying, necessitated long hours, and were occasionally dangerous.

To prepare the railroad bed, railroad workers primarily used shovels, wheelbarrows, mules, and black powder to move millions of tons of rock and dirt. Hundreds of trees were cut and shaped into ties, bridge timbers, and railcar lumber using an axe and an adz. As they worked to connect Tidewater Virginia with the Ohio River Valley, they sweated in the hot summer sun and froze in the cold mountain winters.

john henry untold story
Photo – Amazon.com

You can buy book here : John Henry by Julius Lester

The Legend of John Henry was born at Big Bend Mountain near Talcott, West Virginia, as the C&O Railway stretched westward along the Greenbrier River. The legend of John Henry is just that: a legend, and John Henry became a symbol as a result of it. He represented the many African Americans who built and maintained the rails across West Virginia with their sweat and hard work. He was a symbol for the African-American workers who lost their lives in these hazardous jobs. The legend has kept the story of John Henry and the black railroad workers alive through ballads and work songs.

Workers started drilling the Great Bend Tunnel in February 1870, where the Greenbrier River makes a seven-mile meander around Big Bend Mountain. A 6,450-foot-long tunnel was carved through the mountain by over 800 men, many of whom were African Americans. The workers had to cut through layers of red shale that disintegrated when exposed to air, making the tunnel a hazardous place to work. It was common to have rock falls, and death was always a possibility. The Great Bend Tunnel is the longest on the C&O Railway, measuring nearly a mile and a quarter in length.

john henry untold story
 A crew of railroad workers poses for the camera in 1911

Untold History of John Henry It took a long time and a lot of effort to build a tunnel in the 1870s. A hand drill and hammer were used to drill holes into the rock layers. The rock was then blasted and filled with powder to make it small enough to remove from the tunnel. A “shaker” held the drill, turning it slightly after each blow and shaking it to get the rock dust out of the hole. Swinging the hammer as hard and as often as he could, the “steel driver” pounded the drill into the rock.

According to legend, John Henry was hired as a railroad steel driver. The railroad company later brought in a steam drill to speed up tunnel construction. The steam drill was said to be capable of drilling faster than any man. “Man versus machine” was the challenge. On the railroad, John Henry was known as the strongest, fastest, and most powerful man. He pitted the black worker against the steam drill to show that he could drill a hole through the rock farther and faster than the drill. He pounded the drill so fast and so hard into the rock with two 10-pound hammers, one in each hand, that he drilled a 14-foot hole. According to legend, the drill could only drill nine feet. John Henry defeated the steam drill but died from exhaustion later.

John Henry lies dead after beating the steam drill -_painting by Palmer Hayden

The Great Bend Tunnel opened to the public on September 12, 1872, and remained in use until 1974. The Ballad of John Henry has etched the tunnel and the man into the annals of history. A boy is born with a “hammer in his hand,” according to the song. It tells the story of a steel driver who worked on the Great Bend Tunnel’s construction. It says that this man faced down a steam-powered drilling machine with a hammer in each hand. “If I can’t beat this steam drill down, I’ll die with this hammer in my hand!” John Henry promised. John Henry became one of the world’s great folk heroes after the Great Bend Tunnel.


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