The story of John Henry, told mostly through ballads and work songs, travelled from coast to coast as the railroads drove west during the 19th century. And it has become timeless.
The main ingredient required for any story or song about John Henry is the fact that he worked on a railroad as a “steel-driving man.” Steel drivers worked in teams to carve railroad tunnels through mountains. According to the legend, John Henry agreed to race a new piece of technology, a steam-powered drill, to prove that he was better, faster, and stronger than new-fangled piece of machinery. The contest between man and machine raged for hours, but in the end, John Henry won.
Unfortunately the contest took a deadly toll on his body, and he died immediately after. From here the details vary from rendition to rendition. In some versions, Henry's boss or “captain” makes a bet that his best steel driving man can outperform the machine, while in other versions John Henry initiates the contest in order to demonstrate his superiority over the drill.
But was John Henry real? Did this larger than life steel-driving man exist, and did he fight a battle to the death with a machine?
Some sources provide tantalising but imprecise clues. For example, his birth-state is identified separately as Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia. One legend has it that he was a slave born in Alabama in the 1840s and fought his famous battle with the steam hammer along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in Talcott, West Virginia. A statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the tunnel in which the competition may have taken place.
The railroad historian Roy C Long found that there were multiple Big Bend Tunnels along the C&O rail line. Also, the C&O employed multiple black men who went by the name "John Henry" at the time that those tunnels were being built. He believes on the basis of anecdotal evidence that the contest between man and machine did indeed happen at the Talcott, West Virginia site due to the presence of all three (a man named John Henry, a tunnel named Big Bend, and a steam-powered drill) at the same time at that place.
The part-time folklorist John Garst has argued that the contest instead happened at the Coosa Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western railroad in Alabama in 1887. He conjectures that John Henry may have been a man named Henry born a slave to PAL Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1844.
Scott Reynolds Nelson, a historian, is convinced that the man and the race were real, but he places the historic episode a bit further east of Big Bend Mountain, at the Lewis Tunnel. And the most importantly he was a prisoner incarcerated at the Virginia State Penitentiary, leased out to the C&O for 25 cent a day.
Nelson believes John Henry was among the 10% of railroad workers who were horribly injured or killed on the Big Bend job that year. The dead were sent, along with the injured, back to prison for burial.
West Virginia historian Ed Cabbell is convinced John Henry was a former slave, probably from Richmond, who worked on the Big Bend Tunnel and who did win a contest with the steam drill.
Source: mrsteelsclass.com, .latimes.com, shmoop.com