"Hammer gonna be the death of me"
The story of John Henry is typical of many stories from the industrial revolution: Man versus machine. Although the story of John Henry sounds like a myth akin to Paul Bunyan, the story is based in true events. It’s the finer details, like location, that seem to be in question.
Like many of you, I had always thought that the story of John Henry’s race with the steam drill took place in the mountains of West Virginia, but there seems to be a growing number of people who feel the story actually originated in Alabama.
As I had originally heard the story, John Henry was a big man, over six foot tall and weighing about 200 pounds – a giant in his day. He was the best steel driver the B&O Railroad ever had. The B&O was the first large commercial railroad in the U.S., incorporated in 1827. After the Civil War the great rush to join the country together with ribbons of rail had begun. As they pushed into West Virginia several tunnels had to be drilled through the mountains, the most important of which was the one-and-a-quarter mile long Big Bend Tunnel built between 1870 and 1873.
While the industrial revolution brought the steam powered trains that run on the rails, the work of making a smooth roadbed and laying the rails was entirely accomplished with manual labor. The same is true for tunneling. To tunnel through the rock a steel driving team, consisting of a hammer man and a shaker, would drill holes into the rock face where explosives would be packed. The shaker would hold a long, heavy steel rod with cutting teeth on one end against the rock face. With each driving blow from the hammer man, the shaker would rotate the rod in a slow drilling action. Some historians believe that John Henry could drill 10-20 feet in a 12 hour day, the best of any steel driver.
The legend says that one day a salesman showed up with a new fangled steam-powered drill that could out drive any man. John Henry accepted the challenge. According to the legend, John Henry drove 14 feet and the steam drill only 9. John Henry died shortly after from exhaustion or a stroke.
The original story was documented by W.T. Blankenship when he published the song “John Henry, The Steel Driving Man” around 1900. Over the years many historians have tried, with varying success, to prove the legend true. Recently, Prof. John Garst has found compelling evidence that the story actually took place during the construction of the Columbus & Western Railroad’s Coosa Tunnel located about 15 miles east of Birmingham, Alabama.
Whatever the true location, the story of John Henry’s defeat of the steam drill has been inspiration for generations of people as a protest against poor working conditions and as an inspiration representing man’s dominance over machine.
For some fascinating reading on the legend and controversy, check John Henry: The Steel Driving Man.