- 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 first step in pursuit of the legend was to find out whether John Henry’s race against the steam drill could have taken place. This meant establishing whether both hand labor and steam drilling were practiced while Big Bend Tunnel was under construction; and then, whether the race described in the ballad would have been a reasonable contest.
If a drill was tried at the east portal of Big Bend, as claimed in certain testimony gathered by Johnson and Chappell, it would have been used early in the two years of east-to-west construction, probably in the summer or fall of 1870.
The first reciprocating percussion drill was apparently patented in March, 1849, by J. J. Couch of Philadelphia. A steam drill was used in the construction ol Hoosac Tunnel, which was begun in 1855 and completed in 1873. Another was used at Lewis Tunnel, a few miles from Big Bend, in January, November, and possibly in April of 1871. While Lewis was cut mainly through hard sandstone, Big Bend had to be drilled through red shale. A drill might suit one and not the other. But if a drill manufacturer sold one to the contractor at Lewis, it seems likely he would have tried to make another sale at Big Bend.
But the facts of the John Henry legend, it appears, were fated to elude historians. While there is an abundance of data abont other tunnels, a fire in a Chesapeake & Ohio warehouse destroyed all the engineers’ and contractors’ reports about Rig Bend. All must rest on recollection and hearsay.
One of the few living men found by Johnson who had anything to do with the engineering aspects oF Big Bend was a Chesapeake & Ohio engineer named James P. Nelson, who said: “I saw the first shovelful of earth cast, and worked on top of the tunnel and underneath it, day and night, and have no recollection of a steam drill having been used.”
Johnson also located William Wimmer, a retired locomotive engineer living near the tunnel, who claimed that he had driven the first locomotive through Big Bend. He was seventy-two when Johnson interviewed him; he had been fourteen when work began on the tunnel. Wimmer said:
“I carried water and steel to shaft number one. That was down toward the west end of the tunnel. 1 have heard about the steel-driving contest but 1 think 1 must have heard about it some time after the tunnel was finished.” But a race could have taken place at the east end, Wimmer allowed, without his hearing of it.
You see, those steel-driving contests were pretty common. 1 don’t mean between men and steam drills, but between two pair of drivers. I have seen many a contest in my day. Back in North Carolina, I’ve seen two or three hundred people gather on a Sunday afternoon to see a contest. Thcrc’d usually be a wager up. They’d agree to drive a certain depth or a certain length of time and the winning pair, that is, the driver and the turner, would get the money. I’ve seen them put up two or three hundred dollars in a contest—besides lots of bets by spectators on the side. Most people who have worked around tunnels or quarries get used to contests and sort of take them for granted; so i can see how this fellow, John Henry, could have had his contest without raising much stir around camp. Still, since it was a man against a steam drill, it does look as if the news would have spread around pretty well.
The “news,” in fact, did spread pretty well. Around Talcott and the Summers County seat, Hinton, the investigations of Johnson and Chappell turned up several elderly Negroes who claimed to have known John Henry himself. Nearly every one of them professed absolute knowledge that the race took place, but in every case their accounts collapsed under scrutiny. The informants would relate John Henry to the wrong dates or the wrong contractor or even the wrong tunnel. But the tale had persisted among them.
Two bits of hearsay picked tip by Chappell, both from old-time white residents of the area, suggest that the race was known and discussed by John Henry’s contemporaries. One was J. E. Huston, who began work as a telegrapher at Big Bend in 1893. He said:
The John Henry slory has been in our family ever since we moved to Big Bend Tunnel in 1881. My father worked for the C&O Railroad and they moved him to Talcott in 1881. After we moved here I heard him talk with people around the tunnel time and time again about the contest John Henry had with the steam drill.
The other account came from George Hedrick, who was seventeen when work began on Big Bend in 1870. He lived a lew hundred yards from the tunnel with his brother, John, twenty-three, and their father. He told Chappell:
My brother John helped to survey the tunnel and had charge of the woodwork in building it. I often saw John Henry drive steel out there. I saw the steam drill too, when they brought it to the east end of the tunnel, but I didn’t see John Henry when he drove in the contest with it. I heard about it right after. My brother saw it. My memory is Bill Henderson and John Henry drove together against the steam drill. That was the usual way of driving steel in the tunnel.