John Henry and the Coming of the Railroad

historic photo of workers in front of RR tunnel
Workers posing in front of unknown tunnel circa 1880

C&O Historical Society

Wherever you may find yourself in the New River Gorge, take the time to quietly listen. Intertwined with the sounds of nature; birdsong, flowing water, and wind through the trees you will most likely also hear the whistle of a train. The original Chesapeake and Ohio railroad company line was constructed, following the New River through the gorge, between 1869 and 1872. This line is very active today with dozens of daily runs by CSX railway corporation coal and freight trains, and Amtrak's Cardinal passenger line.

John Henry statue in front of tunnel
Statue of John Henry in front of Great Bend Tunnel

NPS photo/Dave Bieri

The coming of the railroad through New River Gorge and southern West Virginia was the key event in shaping the modern history of this region. It transformed an isolated and sparsely populated land of subsistence farmsteads into a booming area of company owned coal mining and logging towns that supplied the natural resources that were the base of our nation's industrial revolution, and were melting pots for diverse groups of new peoples.

The C&O railroad was built primarily by two groups of working men, thousands of African-Americans recently freed from enslavement, and recent Irish Catholic immigrants; both groups anxious to begin new lives for themselves and their families as American citizens.

The construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad from the Virginia border through the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia to the Ohio River was a monumental undertaking. Working from both ends of the state the workers spent three years digging and grading the rail bed, hand drilling and blasting the tunnels, and building the bridges and laying the tracks. Using hand tools and explosives, with horses and mules helping with the heaviest loads, these men literally carved the pathway for the railroad through the rugged mountains by hand.

RR tunnel
Great Bend Tunnel entrance

NPS photo

One of the greatest legends of world folklore was born from these workers and their enormous task; John Henry "The Steel Driving Man".

The John Henry of legend is more myth than man; a tragic, larger than life hero involved in an epic battle between man and machine, which was immortalized in a popular folk song the "Ballad of John Henry".

The song sings of a little boy born with a fateful vision of a "hammer in his hand", who as a steel driver during the construction of the Great Bend Tunnel on the C&O railroad at Talcott, West Virginia takes a hammer in each hand crying "A man ain't nothing but a man", as he faces down a giant steam powered drilling machine with the promise "If I can't beat this steam drill down I'll die with this hammer in my hand!"

John Henry was the working mans champion in a contest to defend the pride and livelihood of his co-workers as they faced the threat of competition from machines at their work. True to his boyhood vision, John Henry triumphs in a fierce race with the drilling machine, but he "dies with his hammer in his hand" from the exertion of his great feat of strength.

Big Bend Tunnel sign
Big Bend (Great Bend) Tunnel Historical Marker

NPS photo

Historical research supports John Henry as a real person; one of thousands of African- American railroad workers, specifically a steel driver, half of a two man team specializing in the hand drilling of holes up to fourteen feet deep into solid rock for the setting of explosive charges. Steel drivers swung a nine pound hammer straight and strong, all day, everyday, pounding assorted lengths of steel drill bits held by their steady and trusting partners, called shakers, who placed and guided the drill bits , and after every strike of the hammer turned or "shook" the bits to remove the pulverized dust. Together these teams of perfectly choreographed industrial artists would with concentration and muscle lead the way, boring the mile long tunnel through Great Bend Mountain and onward along the pathway throughout the length of New River Gorge.

Legend and history merged when to test the viability of purchasing steam powered drilling machines to replace the human drilling teams, the railroad staged a contest at the Great Bend Tunnel. Chosen for their skill and speed to compete against the machine, John Henry and his shaker (history does not record his name, although legend sometimes calls him "Little Bill") faced off side by side with the steam drill and won, drilling farther and faster.

Whatever version of the race you choose to believe, the result was the same. The construction of the Great Bend Tunnel and the entire C&O rail line was not a product of the modern machinery of the industrial age but the basic physical labor of thousands of now unknown workers in an everyday struggle to make a living for themselves and their families.

Historians also believe that John Henry died at the Great Bend Tunnel, one of the estimated hundreds of workers dying in rock falls, malfunctioning explosions and "tunnel sickness(the excessive inhalation of dust), who now rest in unmarked graves at the tunnel entrance below the statue of John Henry, who still stands as their champion.

John Henry was but one of the thousands of men whose strong backs, sweat, blood, and desire to build a new life for themselves and their families were the true foundation for the coming of the Chesapeake and Ohio railroad, the growth of our nation, and the whistle you still hear today.

Last updated: January 26, 2021

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