Appalachian Thursday – John Henry’s Big Bend Tunnel
I love researching my stories. Especially when I turn up something fun that I just flat out didn’t know. Like that John Henry, the mythical “steel driving man” of folk ballads, took on a steam drill in southern West Virginia.
My next novel, When Silence Sings, is set primarily in Thurmond, WV, which was a booming rail town in 1930. My editors suggested that my characters were having to travel too far by train to get to other towns and wondered if I could tighten up the geography. Ah, the challenges of writing about REAL places!
Well, I needed a train tunnel. And quickly discovered that the Big Bend Tunnel is conveniently located for my story. Yay! So I read up on the tunnel to make sure it fit the timeline. Absolutely! It’s over a mile long and was completed in 1872. It shortens rail trips by about seven miles by boring straight under Big Bend Mountain.
AND . . . it’s where John Henry beat a steam drill during construction! When blasting rock to build a tunnel men drive steel bits into the rock then insert explosives in the holes. John Henry was the striker who swung the hammer to hit the bit. His shaker would have turned the bit between strikes (now that’s a brave man!).
The story is that the contractor for the tunnel planned to bring in a faster steam drill to replace men. Well, John Henry couldn’t let that pass so he took on the machine and according to the song won but exerted himself to the point that it killed him. Today, there’s a statue of John Henry at the Big Bend Tunnel. I still haven’t figured out how to work a John Henry mention into the story so I thought I’d share the details with you.
There are lots of versions of the lyrics but Pete Seeger’s may be the best known.
John Henry was about three days old
Sittin’ on his papa’s knee
He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel;
Said, ‘Hammer’s gonna be the death of me, Lord, Lord
Hammer’s gonna be the death of me.’
The captain said to John Henry
‘Gonna bring that steam drill ’round
Gonna bring that steam drill out on the job
Gonna whop that steel on down. Down, Down
Whop that steel on down.’
John Henry told his captain
‘A man ain’t nothin’ but a man
But before I let your steam drill beat me Down
I’d die with a hammer in my hand. Lord, Lord
I’d die with a hammer in my hand.’
John Henry said to his shaker
‘Shaker, why don’t you sing?
I’m throwin’ thirty pounds from my hips on Down
Just listen to that cold steel ring. Lord, Lord
Listen to that cold steel ring.’
The man that invented the stream drill
Thought he was mighty fine
But John Henry made fifteen feet;
The steam drill only made nine. Lord, Lord
The steam drill only made nine
John Henry hammered in the mountain
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard, he broke his poor Heart
He laid down his hammer and he died. Lord, Lord
He laid down his hammer and he died.