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Myths, Truths and Misconceptions

by Michael E. Cales



Most of us are familiar with John Henry and have heard the various versions of the legend the supernatural, the real person and the Gandy Dancer etc. I for one was content to believe that no one knew the actual account of the man and the contest. Quite happy to straddle the fence maybe true maybe not.

This changed when I  began to attend the John Henry Steering Committee meetings. The late local Historian John Kesler introduced me to two books. They were as follows; John Henry Tracking Down a Negro Legend by Dr. Guy B. Johnson and John Henry a Folklore Study by Dr. Louis W. Chappel. In addition to these two books I was privileged to review Mr Kesler's extensive collection of documents, newspaper articles, his personnel insights of the contest, the building of the tunnel and local history. 

After becoming the chairman of the John Henry Historical Park's Kiosk Committee performing the necessary research to portray the legend in a honest concise manner for the public, I came to the conclusion that John Henry and the contest held at the Great Bend aka Big Bend Tunnel was a plausible event. I cannot speak for the other committee members, but I do think that they would agree. 

In this article I will attempt to clarify the common misconceptions presented within the Ballads, songs, poems, hastily written newspaper articles, fictional made for TV videos, and YouTube videos. 

For simplicity sake, a question and answer format will be used.


Q: Did John Henry work for the Chesapeake & Oho railway?

A: No, he worked for one of the subcontractors employed by the General Contractor Captain William R. Johnson. 

Q: Was John Henry a real man?

A: Yes, per the testimony of first and second hand witness's JH worked as a steel driver at the tunnel.


Q: Did John Henry have supernatural abilities?

A: No, he was a man with all of the restrictions and limitations that encompass the human body.


Q: Did he use a twenty pound hammer or swing two hammers at once?

A: No, he would have used either a seven or nine pound hammer. Yes, he was able to swing two hammers at once working vertically but not horizontal the direction used during the contest.  


Q: Did he drive railroad spikes?

A: No, spike drivers commonly known as Gandy Dancers drove the spikes that held the train rails in place. At the time of the contest the railroad was still in Virginia. All supplies were floated down the Greenbriar river via Bateaux boats from Burnt Bridge current day Caldwell West Virginia.


Q: Was there a steam power drill at the site?

A: There is no documented proof of one onsite: however, Neal Miller, age 17 at the time of the contest, had the job of carrying water and drills bits for the steel drivers. When interviewed by Dr Guy B. Johnson at his home on Hungards Creek, Mr Miller describe the drill and its components in detail. Mr Millers reputation of a honest, trustworthy man was verified by his friends and neighbors.


Q: Could John Henry beat the drill?

A: Yes, the drill had the power of approximately nine pounds per square inch, blows per minute are unknown.  Drills in the later part of the 1870's had thirty five to sixty PSI with two to six hundred BPM.


Q: Were there any contributing factors that gave John Henry a advantage?

A: Yes, the soft red shale that was intermingled within the hard red shale. To quote a common stanza of the Ballard, " Your hole done choke and your drill done broke". The soft shale created a situation where the steam drill's drill bit would repeatably gum up, requiring the bit to be removed from the hole to allow cleaning which caused it to loss time. An experience shaker (one who held and turned the bit) was able to accomplished this between the strokes of the steel driver. 


Q: Were hundreds of jobs saved?

A: No, the steel driving crews made up less then ten percent of the entire workforce. There were six headings under construction at the same time due to the space constraints. No more then six two man drill teams could function at any given time at each heading. This represented a total of seventy two men (authors estimate). The remaining  workforce would not have been affected.


Q: What about Pollie Ann?

A: Pollie Ann is first mentioned in the Blankenship Broadside, what is thought to be the oldest known version of the Ballad. There is no documentation of Pollie Ann residing in then Monroe County, or Summers County that was established on the 27th, of February 1871. However the local community of Talcott (Talk-it) has a strong oral tradition that she was John Henry's wife and is purportedly buried in the Simpson Methodist Church cemetery. 


Q: Did he Live? 

A: Testimonies from first and second hand accounts agree that JH did not live. However there are accounts that JH did live and later perish. Others claim that he completed the project and moved on. One should know that after the Civil War it was not uncommon for newly freed African Americans to use the name John Henry. If I am not mistaken, in Guy B. Johnson's book he relates that there were several men employed during construction of the tunnel with the JH name. This could be a contributing factor for the difference of opinions concerning his outcome.


Q: Is there  grave?

A: There is no known grave, but there are several places that contend that he is buried at their site. The most credible is related in the Meadows family history as follows: John Maxey, great nephew of Preston and Russel Meadows brothers, relates his uncle's testimony that John Henry did race the steam drill and did win the contest. Then died shortly thereafter "John Henry is buried about 1000 feet east of the tunnel about ten to twelve feet on the south side of the original railroad tracks". Other local places worthy of mention are in Hilldale where they buried him with a gold hammer, Simpson Methodist Church cemetery that was established six years later in 1876 and Gap Mills.


Q: Was technology the reason?

A: Resentment of machines doing the work of men undoubtedly was an issue but not an unknown surprise. A steam power sawmill and two steam engines were already onsite.The steam drill had been in use since the mid 1850's, then, as today, technology was advancing in all aspects of the workforce, e.g. telegraph, dynamite, bigger and faster trains, typewriters and internal combustion engines, etc. 


Q: Was John Henry concerned about his fellow steel drivers.

A: John Henry lived, worked, and socialized with his coworkers day in and day out. A loyal comradeship developed between them as a result from the harsh, dangerous working conditions that they all endured. They knew each other as family, looking out for one another on and off the job. John Henry, who was intelligent with a possible education, would have known that he could beat the drill. Therefore, by challenging the drill and it's operators to a contest and winning, he would ensure that his fellow's livelihood that they and their family depended on for survival continued throughout the project.

John Henry's ingrained love for his fellow man enabled him to look beyond himself, living and dying in pursuit of making this world a better place, as we all should do.


The above synopsis is derived from the knowledge that has been acquired through research of material available and the insight of the author. As in all events new, past or overlooked information may be revealed, changing the narrative of the story.    

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