On the final leg of our WV travels, we stopped at the John Henry statue in Talcott, WV. As a kid, one of my brother and I’s favorite movies was Tall Tale, a collection of folk legends and stories of the Wild West. One of the prominent characters in the film was John Henry, famous for his race against a steel-driving machine.
When I watched the movie, I never realized that he was actually a real flesh and blood man nor that his famous stand against the machine took place in the hills of West Virginia.
The statue once sat along the road (a rather precarious place to pull off and visit), but has since been relocated to the mouth of the Big Bend Tunnel where the contest took place.
The history of the tunnel and John Henry is fascinating. Befitting an American legend, he was a mountain of a man who could swing two hammers at once (He used smaller hammers so he could swing them one-handed). As he would swing the hammers, he would sing to keep time. When the company brought in a drilling machine, the idea of losing an honest day’s work didn’t sit right with John Henry, and he entered into a competition with the machine. He drove a steel spike 4 feet deeper than the machine, preserving his livelihood.
Some versions of the story end with him dying of exertion in the mouth of the tunnel with his hammer in his hand. While that may be a bit of poetic embellishment, it is more generally believed that this great figure died in an explosion and was laid to rest without a marker in a mass grave at the end of the tunnel along with other workers and mules.
The years have blurred the details of the life of this “Steel-Driving Man.” His story has been the basis for so many poems, songs, movies, and plays that John Henry has almost been forgotten as a real man and has become just another Tall Tale.