February 4, 2012 @ 5:14 pm
Was steel driving man John Henry real?
A man challenges a machine to a race through a mountain. Efficiency and technology versus strength and willpower. It’s one of the greatest and popular myths this country has ever produced. John Henry’s the subject of hundreds of the most popular folk songs, folk tales, movies, children’s books and countless other media. The stories told of the construction of America needs Black men. Metaphorically, John is America himself. The America that constructed itself by hand, by the manual labor of its people.
The railroad industry was what began bringing the country together after the Civil War. Before trains, say– if you were in Portland and wanted to see Aunt Merlene in Okmulgee on Christmas, you had grab Jesus and be on your mule in July.
And to this day, it astonishes me that all the rail track between me and the opposite coastline was laid by hand. Thousands and thousands of them with hammers, but still.
So, I’ll be real and say, nobody knows for sure. But what a lot of people think is this:
John Henry was born a slave in probably in North Carolina somewhere between the 1840’s through the 1850’s. He stood 6 foot, weighed 200 which compared to your cousin Ronald is nuthin, but to the average man of the mid 1800’s he was a giant. But apparently had a sweet personality: I can’t imagine anyone who plays the banjo being mean. He was set free after the civil war and like thousands of other men, sought work for the railroad. He was hired by C&O Railroad. (Chesapeake & Ohio)
A steel driver works with a hammer. His gig is to hit thick steel spikes into rock. He works with a partner, a turner, who squats down over the hole and rotates the drill after each blow from the steel driver.
The C&O rail company crossed paths with Big Bend Mountain in West Virginia. The mountain was too big to go around, so 1000 men took 3 years to drill through it. The job took a lot of lives, naturally, and you can bet the area around the tunnel is a makeshift burial ground.
Of all the men out there, John Henry was the strongest. He used a 14 lbs hammer and could drill between 10 to 20 feet in a 12 hour work day.
Or– He used a hammer in each hand that varied between 9 to 40 lbs.
One of the things I neglect to consider is how soon this was after slavery. The working conditions were probably god-awful. But if anyone wanted to quit, they could. Some blacks saw the job as a better paying extension of the plantation. If not this job, what other options would they have?
Of course, there’d be salesmen out there hustling products to make work easier, faster and one such salesmen approached C&O Railroad, hawking a steam engine which was supposed to out work any man. Supposedly, John Henry’s foreman put up $100 and Henry agreed to the challenge.
John Henry won, drilling 14 feet to the machine’s nine.
Then what? Either John Henry was buried when rocks fell on him in the tunnel. Or, he beat the steam engine and died from exhaustion or a stroke later that night in his sleep or he died on the spot.
What evidence has been culled from research favors the contest taking place in the Big Bend Tunnel in Coosa Mountains in Alabama, on Sept 20 1887.
Below is an awesome adaptation from 1946. And no– its not ‘Based On A True Story’. Its dated and shows it. In a couple of places it had me rolling! But the animation’s gorgeous. What would it have been like for a black boy in the 40′s to have access to a John Henry doll??? And is it just me, or is the unfortunately named Inky Poo a bit… suggestive?
I don’t know what’s up with the intro…