- Historic Sites
“A Man Ain’t Nothin’ But A Man”
The song tells of John Henry, steel-drivin’ man, who fought a steam drill and won. Did he? Or was he just a myth?
October 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 6
The poem they have left us, of a proud hammerswinger caught in a conflict of the industrial revolution, resembles classic tragedy. Our hero’s destiny is prophesied before his journey begins. Then, threatened by the machine, he meets the challenge, defeats the machine in a race, and pays for his victory with his life. We do not know, when the song ends, whether to exult or to weep. As in classic tragedy, we are not quite sure if the hero has won or lost.
What makes John Henry so attractive a literary and historical character? Did he ever live? Did he race a steam drill? Did he beat it and, if so, did his victory destroy him? Why has his story survived? It seems in order to look first at what is known of the facts.
When the tracks of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway first stretched westward through Virginia and then, in the dosing months of the 1860’s, crossed the West Virginia line, the engineers collided with the most formidable of their natural obstacles, the Allegheny Mountains.
More than two years were consumed merely in surveying the wilderness from White Sulphur Springs, on the state line, to Kanawha Falls, little more than fifty miles westward. Surveyors followed what appeared to be the course of least resistance, the banks of the Greenbrier; but the river, wrenching and twisting like an angry snake, lent little ease to their task.
Half a mile west of Talcott in Summers County, the Grccnbrier turns to the south. It wanders for about ten miles in a near loop, doubling back almost to where the bend begins—only a little more than a mile west. Engineers had to decide either to lay their track along the winding riverbank or to tunnel a mile and a quarter through the red shale mountain. They decided to tunnel. It was a decision of great magnitude, for the tunnel was to be, at that time, the longest in America.
The first chip in the mountainside was hammered early in 1870. Late in 1872, the bore was completed, trackage laid, and the first train passed through. Over the portals, in stone lettering, the men carved the name, Great Bend Tunnel. But then and now, everybody has always called it the Big Bend.
About a thousand men labored in Big Bend Tunnel. Most of them were Negroes, only seven or eight years out of slavery. Nobody knows how many of them died, for there seemed to be a studied effort on the part of both the railroad and the press to play down the casualties. If the danger became too widely known, labor might become too difficult to recruit. But guesses might be based on casualties reported at other tunnels. The Wheeling Intelligencer said on December go, 1870, that 1,000 lives had been lost at Mont Cenis Tunnel in the French Alps. The Kanawha Chronicle revealed on December 17, 1873, that 136 had been killed in boring Hoosac Tunnel in Massachusetts.
The three great killers were tunnel sickness (from heat and foul air), explosives (nitroglycerin, dualin, and gunpowder), and falls of rock. At Big Bend, one slide of 8,000 cubic feet of rock was reported by the Greenbrier Independent on June 1, 1872, but the paper said nothing about casualties. Many must have been dead by then, however, for as the tunnel penetrated the mountain, the likelihood of deaths from foul air mounted with each day.
And constantly there was the blasting of explosives. Drilling in Mont Genis Tunnel was described in Every Saturday , October 14, 1871: “The smoke from the blast became so thick that the light from the lamps was visible no farther than a tew steps … Suddenly an infernal noise burst upon us from the end of the gallery. One would have said ten thousand hammers were falling simultaneously on their anvils. A sharp, whistling sound made itself heard above this clamor, piercing yon to the very marrow.”
Under conditions such as these, men like John Henry labored at Big Bend for twelve to fourteen hours a day to do what the engineers said had to be done. America needed a new railroad to move west, and a mountain was standing in the way.
In the middle and late 1920’s, while there was still time tu locate living persons who might have been on hand at the building of Big Bend Tunnel, a pair of folklorists became interested in John Henry and his exploits. These two men conducted their investigations separately—in fact, competitively—and with occasional flares of animosity. But their research uncovered virtually all the reliable material. Guy K. Johnson, of the University of North Carolina Institute for Research in Social Science, published his findings in 1928 ( Johny Henry: Tracking Down a Negro Legend ). Louis W. Chappell. associate professor of English, University of West Virginia, published his in 1933 ( Johny Henry: A Folklore Study ).