The myth, the man, the legend – John Henry

There’s plenty of history and folklore to discover here in southern West Virginia. One of those stories involves a man, a machine and a legacy left behind. It’s the story of John Henry.

John Henry, The Steele Drivin’ Man

The Story

It is told that John Henry, a former slave, worked for the C&O railroad driving steel, a job required when blasting rock. Between 1868 and 1870, the C&O railroad was building rail lines in southern WV when it had to tunnel through Big Bend Mountain near Talcott.

As the legend goes, John Henry was the best steel driver the railroad had and could drill through more rock than anyone. When they were part of the way through the mountain, C&O purchased a steam-powered drill for the job. The men were upset that they may be replaced by a machine, so they issued a challenge and pitted John Henry against this drill to see who could handle the job best.

John nearly doubled the amount of rock that the steam drill produced.  Legend is that John died right after it was announced he won.

The Statue

In 1972, on the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Great Bend Tunnel, a statue of John Henry was erected at the top of the tunnel near Talcott where it remained for 40 years. The statue itself is over 750 pounds of bronze and was sculpted in Michigan by Charles O. Cooper.  The statue proved to be as tough as the man himself, surviving numerous gun shots, baseball bat blows and a trip or two down the road.

In 2012 the statue was restored and moved to a safer location. What is now the John Henry Historical Park at the location of the Big Bend Tunnel.  The John Henry Museum and Gift shop is located nearby at 21 Pat Ball Road in Talcott, WV.

The Site

The John Henry statue was lovingly restored and moved to new location in June 2012.  John Henry now stands west of town, on the south side of Hwy 12/Hwy 3, in John Henry Historical Park. The statue is down near the entrance to the Big Bend railroad tunnel in Talcott, WV.

At this new location the tradition continues as the celebration of John Henry Days, a festival in his name, is held on the second weekend in July. 2022 marks the 25th anniversary of this festival!

This is just one of many interesting stories in WV history.

What southern West Virginia legend is your favorite?

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