His story is told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books and novels. Various locations, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama, have been suggested as the site of the contest. I am going to tell his tale at the Big Bend location that I remember.
John Henry was believed to be born around the 1840’s and lived the early part of his life as a slave but was later freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.
He spent his day drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his hammer. The rail road was progressimg nicely thanks in part to John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was Big Bend Mountain. The C&O Railroad bosses decided that they couldn’t go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain, so they decided to drill right through it.
It took three long years and many tragic deaths before it was completed. John Henry had worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14-pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one was a match for him.
A salesman had wandered into the camp claiming he had a steam-powered drill that could out-drill any man. A contest was set up between John Henry and the drill. The foreman ran the drill and John Henry pulled out two 20-pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled two seven foot holes – a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine-foot hole.
John Henry was the winner and held up his hammers in celebration. The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer’s rolling from his grasp. The crowd went silent as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late, his heart had given out from over exertion.
John Henry’s likeness is believed by many to be carved into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sounds of his hammers drilling into the rock.