Legend of John Henry

You learn something every day.  I have always been fascinated in the story of man versus machine, as related in the story of John Henry and the steam drill.  This image of John Henry is from the C & O Historical Society Digital Image Gallery.


As a child of the sixties, I have always been interested in folk music.   In fact, I can still play the guitar and banjo, and can still sing many of the folk songs made popular in that era that celebrated American folk music.


One line that sticks in my mind is:


"The Big Bend Tunnel on the C & O Road..."


...as the location of John Henry's famous battle with the "steam drill".  Recently, the State of Alabama Department of Transportation published a new state rail map, and this indicates that the events of the John Henry legend really took place in Alabama, here in the Birmingham District, near the town of Leeds, just east of Birmingham.


Now, that is too good to pass up for the Birmingham Rails web page!


Being a great believer in the folk tradition, I thought that the DOT Rail Map authors must be in error.  I believe that there are errors in some of the material in this map, but that is another story.  However, I turned to the internet to see what others had to say about this legend -- Big Bend Tunnel, in West Virginia or Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama?


After investigating the internet sources, and making a judgment, it appears to me that there may be a very strong case for the Alabama John Henry, rather than the West Virginia John Henry.  On the other hand, how did the oral tradition, passed down in the folk songs place John Henry in West Virginia?  Who knows for sure?


You may do your own investigation and draw your own conclusions.  But, I am going with Alabama, of course.


National Public Radio Article about John Henry, September 2, 2002


John Henry in Alabama?


Jerry Voyle's Story of John Henry  -- This is interesting excerpts from a railroad man's journal; enjoy it all and scroll to find John Henry.


Map locations of the Alabama tunnels


Enjoy, and maintain your sense of humor and history. 

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