John Henry: Steel Driving Man and West Virginia Hero

John Henry was a black man, very possibly a former slave from the Virginias or Carolinas. He stood about six feet tall and weighed around 200 pounds – not Herculean dimensions – but he was a large man for his time and powerfully muscled, according to the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. In 1870, when John Henry came to Summers County, West Virginia, he was probably in his early 30s. Photos by David Taylor.

By David Taylor

Here are a few pictures from our recent visit to John Henry Historical Park in the small Summers County, WV community of Talcott. This park is now located at the site of John Henry’s epic battle with the steam drill.

Whether truth, legend, myth, or a mix of all of those things, it is certain John Henry was indeed a steel driving man.

According to the John Henry Historical Park website, the Legend of John Henry was born in the Summers County community known as Talcott. John Henry was a steel driver in the employment of Captain William R. Johnson, he was employed to help bore the Great Bend Tunnel through Big Bend Mountain for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. When a steam drill showed up at the site, a threat to the workers livelihood became evident. John Henry challenged it to a contest and the rest is history. Most accounts agree that after about an hour he had out driven the steam drill by more than five feet. If he then “laid down his hammer and died” is a point of contention. However, John Henry did work in the Great Bend Tunnel and this has been substantiated by historians.

According to historical accounts, the story of John Henry the man was developed from the accounts of the men who worked alongside him at the tunnel. Dr. Louis W. Chappell, an associate professor of English at West Virginia University, and Dr. Guy B. Johnson of the University of North Carolina Institute for Research in Social Science, conducted extensive interviews during the mid to late 1920’s with many men that had knowledge of the affair.  In 1928, Dr. Johnson published John Henry Tracking Down a Negro Legend. In 1933, Dr. Chappell published John Henry a Folklore Study.

​Further, the group notes the men they interviewed provided testimonies that were at times contradictory. Considering that 50 years had gone by since the contest had taken place, this inconsistency could have been because most of interviewees related events that had been passed down to them though the preceding generations or from stories and songs. However, when the information was assimilated the results found that it supported an actual event.


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