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John Henry

John Henry, the Steel Drivin' Man

Most people have at least heard of John Henry. The legend goes that his prowess as a steel-driver led him to compete against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. Furthermore, that he won the contest, only to die shortly after his victory as his heart gave out from the stress. The location of the fabled contest has been widely disputed, as Virginia, West Virginia and Alabama all claim to be the home of the legend. But there may be evidence pointing to Alabama as the true location of the event.

The West Virginia case is based on the “eyewitness” testimony of a man named Neal Miller, who claimed to have been a water carrier at the age of 17 for the C. & O. Railway. He also claimed to have seen John Henry every day while the Big Bend Tunnel was being constructed and that when the railway introduced the steam drill, Miller was there to witness the competition. However, Sociologist Guy B. Johnson, the researcher who took Miller’s testimony, contacted C. & O. and was told that no steam drills were ever used at that location.

The case for Virginia was made by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson. Nelson discovered documentation of a 19 year-old African-American man named John Henry or John W. or John William Henry. This young man’s name was discovered in prison records of the Virginia Penitentiary. Supposedly, during that time period, the penitentiary would hire out their inmates as laborers to various contractors, and the John Henry in their records was noted as having been assigned to tunnel work with the C. & O. Railway. Nelson confirmed through C. & O.’s records that no steam drill was used in Big Bend Tunnel, so Nelson turned his attention to the Lewis Tunnel as the possible location of the contest, as prisoners were recorded as working next to steam drills there. Unfortunately, there are no railway records or eyewitness accounts to place him there and John Henry the convict’s prison records continued until 1873. There is no record of what actually happened to him.

The last case is for Alabama, and here we find what may be proof of John Henry. Professor Johnson, who researched the case for West Virginia, received letters saying that in 1882 John Henry worked on the A.G.S Railway, building the Cruzee or Curzey Mountain Tunnel. A third letter was received claiming it was the Oak Mountain Tunnel in 1887, but Johnson discounted those reports as A.G.S told them there was no such tunnel. Another professor, retired chemistry professor John Garst has suggested that the contest happened either at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway, near Leeds, Alabama. Folklorist Garst believes that the contest took place on September 20, 1887. Another “eyewitness”, C.C. Spencer claimed to have witnessed the contest in the 1820s. Garst has studied the documentation of C.C. Spencer’s account and has speculated that John Henry was a man named John Henry Dabney, born a slave to P.A.L Dabney who was the father of the man who was chief engineer for that railroad. Garst’s research seems to have the best claims to date. Leeds, Alabama has an exhibit in the Bass House Historical Museum to honor this local legend, John Henry and an annual festival in the fall to commemorate the occasion of his victory. This year, on September 21st, the John Henry Celebration and Leeds Fall Festival will be expanded to include two performances of the original outdoor play about John Henry called “Listen to that Cold Steel Ring”. Leeds has held this festival in honor of John Henry since 2007. Come soak up some local history by attending this year’s festival in honor of The Steel-Driving Man.