- 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
George Hedrick added that John Henry “was black, and six feet high, thirty five years old and weighed two hundred or a little more. He could sing as well as he could drive steel and was always singing when he was in the tunnel—‘Can’t you drive her—huh!’”
An interview with his brother, John Hedrick, revealed that he didn’t quite see the race either:
I was manager of the woodwork in putting through Rig Bend Tunnel and built the shanties of the Negroes there in the camp … He [John Henry] drove steel with the steam drill at the east end of the inside of the tunnel not far from the end. Hc was working under Foreman Steele and he beat the steam drill, too. The steam drill got hung up, but John Henry was beating him all the time. I didn’t see the contest, because it was on the inside of the tunnel and not many could get in there. I was taking up timber and heard him singing and driving and he was keeping in tune.
The man who came closest to being an eyewitness of the race, at least according to his own claim, was C. S. “Neal” Miller, who came to the Big Bend Tunnel area in the spring of 1869 at the age of seventeen. As a water boy and steel carrier for the drivers at the east end, Miller claimed he carried for the gang of which John Henry was a member:
I saw John Henry drive steel in Big Bend Tunnel. He was a great singer, and always singing some old song when he was driving steel. He was a black, raw-boned man, thirty years old, six feet high and weighed near two hundred pounds. He and Phil Henderson, another big Negro but not so high, were pals, and said that they were from North Carolina … Dave Withrow, who lived with his wife at our home, was foreman in charge of the i work on the outside of the tunnel where John Henry beat the steam drill, and Alike Breen was the foreman on the inside of the tunnel there.
The steam drill was brought to Riß Bend Tunnel as an experiment, and failed because it stayed broke all the time, or hung up in the rocks, and it could be used only on bench drills anyway. It was brought to the cast end of the tunnel when work first commenced there, and was never carried in the tunnel. It was thrown aside, and the engine was taken from it and carried to shaft number one, where it took the place of a team of horses and pulled the bucket up in the shaft with a windlass.
When Johnson asked Miller if the contest had many witnesses or had caused excitement, Miller replied:
No, it was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill. There wasn’t any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting along lrom time to time. But I didn’t get excited over it especially. The test lasted over a part of two days, and the depth was twenty feet, more or less.
An intriguing item in Miller’s testimony is that he recalls the event not as a race but a test. Thus, by reducing the tale’s drama, he increases its plausibility. A sales demonstration of a machine previously sold, say, to the contractor of Lewis Tunnel, would not be likely to whip up a crowd as a race would. Also, the foreman would in all likelihood have hushed tip the event so as not to divert other laborers from their jobs. And finally, if the machine failed, as Miller says it did, the maker of the steam drill would be even less likely to have mentioned the test.
But if the machine was useful at other tunnels, would it fail at Big Bend? Johnson learned from a Mr. Walter Jordan of New York, who, he said, “has had a long acquaintance with drills and drillers,” that a steam drill would break down in certain kinds of rock. Neal Miller’s firsthand recollection of the machine’s failure fits neatly with this statement from Jordan:
The writer has himself often beat a steam drill or air drill on a down [wet] hole in very soft rock, as the machine would “mud up” and have to be cleaned every four or five inches. I have often seen a churn drill out a hole in soft rock where it would be impossible to use a machine.
The ballad itself rephrases the testimony of Walter Jordan and Neal Miller, as though the singers have known that Big Bend was cut through red shale instead of hard sandstone: