John Henry was an African American born in Alabama back in the mid to late 1840s. He some how came here to West Virginia in the mid to late 1860s.
This was either during or after the Civil War. This was before the time the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway came across the Allegheny Mountains here in West
Virginia. For the C&O to have been able to connect the Atlantic Coast with the Ohio Valley, great strides were made to make it possible. Multiple
tunnels had to be carved from Clifton Forge, Virginia to Charleston West Virginia.
At the time, a steam powered drill, the very early ancestor to the Tunnel Boring Machine was built to make tunnel building to have a faster process.
John Henry had already proven his steel driving capability on tunnels of smaller length. Tunnels along the C&O Mainline vary from a quarter mile to
over a mile in length. The first bore of the Big Bend Tunnel stretches for over a mile. The first tunnel being completed sometime around 1870.
This tunnel would not have been possible if John Henry had not gotten employed by the C&O Railway Co., the tunnel would have taken longer to complete.
John Henry was the "Steel Drivin' Man" who beat that steam powered drill back in 1870. Legend does not say who it was that was at the controls of
the drill. Now evey time the drill would bore a hole, so would John Henry. The holes that were bored were for the dynamite that was being used to cut
into the mountainside.
Railroad historian Roy C. Long found that there were multiple Big Bend Tunnels along the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Railway. Also, the C&O employed
multiple black men who went by the name "John Henry" at the time that those tunnels were being built.
That is true that the C&O did have
multiple Big Bend Tunnels along the route. One of the tunnels with that name is somewhere around Clifton Forge in Virginia, I believe. However, this
tunnel may have been bypassed by the C&O some years later. Also, it has not been proven as to the number of men named John Henry that actually worked
on the tunnels being built on the C&O.
It is said that during the later years of the original tunnel bores existance, maintenance workers would report seeing a man with a hammer in the
tunnel. It was then that the legend of John Henry's Ghost was born. Most of the witnesses report seeing a full figure of a man swinging a hammer
against the air of the tunnel. The last reported sighting by railroad personel was back in the 1940s, nearly a decade before the new Big Bend Tunnel
was built. A new tunnel was built right next to the original tunnel in the 1950s.
The Town of Talcott, West Virginia has celebrated John Henry Days every year on the weekend after the Fourth of July. This celebration includes yard
sales, a parade, fireworks, and a rubber ducky race on the Greenbrier River. Talcott is located in Summers County, West Virginia.
In the 1970s, the Chessie Sytem Railroads transported a statue of John Henry that was to be placed on State Route 3, right above the original tunnel
bore. The statue maybe moved here in the not to distant future if Talcott's request goes through with the State of West Virginia and CSX, who owns
both tunnels, to put a rail park in place next to the tunnel. Requests also include a very short tourist line that will run through the original
If this does happen, maybe the sightings of his ghost will start back up. That will just be another feather in the cap of the Legend of John Henry.