This is the story of John Henry (not to be confused with John Hardy the outlaw), a hero of labor, the African Diaspora, and American history who was born a slave in 1840 and worked in the fields and in the smithy in a large plantation in Carolina until at the age of fifteen he picked up his hammer from the smithy and struck his master dead. He escaped to the North, married a pretty white girl, and joined up with the army to fight for the freedom of his brothers and sisters in the South. At the battle of Sharpsburg he took the sword from the hands of a Confederate colonel and struck him dead with it. His superiors begged him to stay on after the war, but the idea of a career military man being black was unthinkable at the time, even in the post-war North. So, John Henry gave up the soldiers life and went out to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad.
Hefting a nine kilogram hammer, the biggest ever used by anyone on the Chesapeake and Ohio, he laid steel faster than any man. All the bosses agreed he was the finest worker in the history of the railroad. Each day, his wife who had given up the comfort of her Bostonian family home to live with her husband in the camp by the railroad would come down to the worksite in a pretty blue dress and bring water to the men, only a meager supply of the stuff being provided by the company. Everything was fine, until the railroad reached the Big Bend Mountain – over a mile and a quarter wide. The bosses decided they couldn’t go around it, so they began to have the men give up driving steel and start plowing through the mountain with their hammers.
A thousand men would lose their lives before the great mountain was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. You couldn’t see anything and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him.
Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had a steam-powered drill and claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20-pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled two seven foot holes – a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine-foot hole.
John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer’s rolling from his grasp. The crowd went silent as his wife rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the C&O Railroad was dead.
Some folks say that John Henry’s likeness is carved right into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sound of two 20-pound hammers drilling their way to victory over the machine.
Rest in peace, John Henry. You have finally found relief from your life of hard labor. Rest in peace, John Henry. You will not be forgotten.