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John Henry: In Search of an American Legend - 2002-04-18

Well-known names and places from American history continue to contribute to the nation's economy. Each year, crowds of tourists visit the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous address; they flock to Tombstone, Arizona, where the notorious Gunfight at the OK Corral is re-enacted on a daily schedule. Now, a West Virginia town hopes to attract visitors to the site of a legendary race between man and machine.

The man was John Henry, and his job was to hammer steel spikes into solid rock so explosives could be detonated in the holes to carve out railroad tunnels. In the contest, he hammered his way to the finish point faster than a steam-powered drill. That he lay down his hammer and died from exhaustion upon winning only makes his story more compelling. But the town's plans to claim the celebrated railroad worker as their own are being challenged.

A small roadside park atop southern West Virginia's Big Bend Mountain has been home to an imposing statue of John Henry since 1972. The park is little more than a roadside pullover that overlooks the Greenbrier River and the small community of Talcott. The statue was placed there because John Henry is said to have helped bore the Great Bend Tunnel through the bowels of the mountain and, in the process, achieve immortality by racing the steam drill.

At the base of the mountain, Talcott community leaders have big plans to capitalize on John Henry's fame. "Since 1974 they've taken the tracks up out of the Great Bend Tunnel and a group of people including our county commissioners here in Summers County are trying to acquire a piece of property that hasn't been used since 1932 and a tunnel that has not been used since 1974 to really develop a place here to honor the legend of John Henry," said the long-time postmaster, Bill Dillon.

Talcott already hosts a well-attended annual John Henry Days festival, and a John Henry postage stamp was issued here in 1996. Now, community leaders dream of building a historical park at the mouth of the Great Bend Tunnel, complete with an amphitheater to stage an outdoor drama based on the legend and a miniature steam train to take tourists on a four kilometer round trip through the tunnel.

But if you listen to folklore researcher John Garst, all of these plans should be taken to Leeds, Alabama, some 750 kilometers to the southwest. "I think that they have a better claim than the Big Bend Tunnel area on the legendary John Henry and I think that based on my reading of two major books on the subject," said Mr. Garst.

Those two books were published within four years of each other, in 1929 and 1933. They're usually the first stop for John Henry researchers because the folklorists who wrote them had the opportunity to interview people who would have remembered the railroad worker. Both authors - Guy Johnson of the University of North Carolina and Louis Chappel of West Virginia University - determined that the famous contest took place in Southern West Virginia. But that doesn't convince John Garst. "When I read their data what I conclude is that they have proved that the steam drill John Henry was never there," he said.

The retired chemistry professor and amateur historian says he thinks that John Henry's race against the steam drill actually took place in Leeds during the construction of a railroad tunnel there in 1887. Although there is currently no festival or statue at Leeds, there is local tradition to support the claim.

"There is a photograph of the actual spike in the rock at Oak Mountain Tunnel, Alabama, that the railroad itself says was driven there by John Henry," offers Jerry Voyles, who runs a film production company in nearby Birmingham. His father was a railroad man who worked with men who claimed they knew where the steam drill race took place.

"Many, many people around that area have heard the same stories I'm talking about," Mr. Voyles continued. "Mine goes back to my father telling me over the years that that's the spot where he did race the steam drill. There is no festival, not that I'm aware of. They do not plan to have any or anything like that." But Mr. Voyles has written a screenplay loosely based on John Henry and plans to start production this summer in the Leeds area.

"Once again, there is no way to prove one way or the other but it's just a lot of people who worked for the actual railroad at that time in that area said that's where the John Henry contest occurred. I think most of the older folks that live there would agree to that," said Mr. Voyles.

When Prof. Garst took a research trip to Leeds, it was Mr. Voyles who took him on a tour of the area. Both men say evidence supporting Alabama's claim was too readily discounted by early folklorists. And Prof. Garst theorizes that there were actually two John Henrys working on the railroad - John Henry Martin who worked at Big Bend Mountain outside Talcott and John Henry Dabney, who helped bore the tunnel at Leeds.

"I suspect that the ballad got started shortly after John Henry Dabney's death in Alabama in 1887," explains Prof. Garst. "And that probably pretty quickly, certainly within the year, it was being sung in the vicinity of the Big Bend Tunnel. And I imagine that people there still remembered John Henry Martin. And so they formed this association. And John Henry Martin became the John Henry in their minds who raced the steam drill."

When John Henry was a little baby, Sitting on his mammy's knee He picked up a hammer and he said Lord, Lord, This hammer'll be the death of me...

There are literally dozens of versions of the John Henry ballad. And while Ken Sullivan, the executive director of the West Virginia Humanities Council, concedes that the ballad could have begun in Alabama, he doesn't think it did.

"The preponderance of the evidence is definitely that the John Henry story originated in West Virginia," stresses Mr. Sullivan. "I am familiar with the Alabama version, there's another version that sets it in the Caribbean and I think that may speak to the universal nature of the story. But the research that's been done over 75-80 years certainly indicates that the actual battle with the steam drill took place at Talcott in Summers County, [West Virginia]."

The story of John Henry's race against the steam drill is so shrouded in myth that perhaps it's no wonder there are conflicting claims about where - and even whether - the contest took place. Brett Williams, the author of A Bio-Bibliography of John Henry, believes the famous railroad man was a real person. But she says it's what's not known about him that keeps his legend alive.

"He has lived mostly through song, almost completely through the ballad and some work songs and it's wonderful song but also in the song he is kind of this sketchy figure, we don't know much about him. And so we can embellish him," said Ms. Williams. "We can use our imaginations to make of him the kind of hero that we want. I think also he straddles several traditions. He's been an African American hero, a laboring hero who fights for the dignity of the work and the dignity of the worker. He's been a southern hero. He's been very important to West Virginians. He's also been sort of this guy who stands for the dignity of humanity. I think it's his versatility in part."

Based on her research, Ms. Williams believes that John Henry's contest against the steam drill took place at Big Bend Mountain but she acknowledges that there is no conclusive evidence that places the race in West Virginia or in Alabama, or anywhere else for that matter. But John Garst, whose paper on the subject is being published by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, says in any case the evidence isn't that important.

"A lot of folklorists will tell you it's the legend that matters, not the facts. So, if it should turn out that the steam drill defeating John Henry and he really did his thing in Alabama, so far as legends go, I don't think that takes anything away at all from the very strong local tradition around Big Bend Tunnel," said Prof. Garst.

But it's the conviction among the people of Talcott that John Henry really did race the steam drill at Big Bend that keeps their dreams of capitalizing on his legend alive.