John Henry- The Steel Drivin' Man
men and boys worked on the project, many of them newly- freed slaves
trained only for heavy labor and eager to earn the handsome sum of
$1.25 per day.
For every man killed by careless
blasting, falling rock, asphyxiation and silicosis, it is said that
another was found in the woods with this throat slashed after
walking away from the paymaster or a poker game.
John Henry and his fellow
steel-drivers performed with their hands and their backs, a task
which today is normally done with power equipment- that of drilling
holes in rock for powder charges. As many as 50 holes, sometimes up
to 14 feet deep, were required for each shot of black powder or
nitroglycerin. When the rock was blown free, it was mucked out by
hand and hauled away in mule-drawn carts.
The entire mile and one-quarter of
the Big Bend Tunnel was dug in this manner, although the
steam-powered drill had been invented and used on the nearby Lewis
Tunnel, also built by the C&O around the same period. It is
reported that at least one model of steam drill was tried out at Big
Bend, but found impractical in drilling red shale. There is little
doubt that this decision came after the camp's top steel-driver,
John Henry, put the machine to shame.
The hand drills used at Big Bend
ranged in length from 2 to 14 feet, were about an inch and on e half
in diameter, and tipped with a cross-bladed point. The drivers would
start out with a short drill- usually just called a "steel" by the
men- and then longer drills would be inserted as the hole deepened.
The drills were quickly blunted, and were carried back and forth to
a blacksmith by a steady stream of young boys.
The worker who held the steel for
the drivers was a shaker or turner. Either name is appropriate, for
his task was to give the drill a quick shake after each blow to keep
it from lodging in the rack, and in practically the same motion turn
the drill slightly to prevent rock dust from impacting around the
point. His chief job qualification had to be good nerves and a
trusting nature. The shaker held the drill close against his body,
often between his legs, while the hammers flashed around him.
Sometimes two drivers would work in turn at striking the same drill-
and the light provided in the tunnel from burning lard and
blackstrap oil was not good.
It took a powerful blow to sink the
steel into hard shale, but what really determined the speed of
drilling was how fast the driver could swing his hammer. The drill
could only bite into the rock a fraction of an inch with each blow,
no matter how hard it was struck. The steel-drivers' technique was
to get into a steady rhythm and maintain it as long as possible.
Therefore, the best shakers were those who could exchange a dull
drill for a sharp one, or insert a longer one in the hole so quickly
between blows that the driver did not lose his rhythm
All of the drivers sang work songs
to help measure their strokes. The songs also served as the only
amusement they experienced each day in the foul, dreary tunnel. They
made up verses about their adventures of the night before, their
fears and hopes and heroes like John Henry.
John Henry worked on the "heading"
of the tunnel, the initial horizontal shaft. After the heading was
driven, charges were planted down in the "Bench" to blow out the
rock and widen the tunnel. Driving steel for the heading was far
more dangerous, since rock-all were invited by drilling straight
ahead and sometimes up into the tunnel roof, not yet shores with
timber. This work also required more skill with the hammer than that
of driving steel down in the bench.
It is often said that John Henry
used two hammers, and was the only driver who could manage this
feat, swinging one after another in each hand. If this is true, they
were undoubtedly somewhat smaller and lighter than the 4-foot,
10-pound sledges customarily used at Big Bend. Probably few shakers
could keep up with such a driver, so it stands to reason that John
Henry always worked with the same partner, often remembered as Phil
Henderson, although many versions of the ballad name him Little
"Big John" Henry, as he was called
by the men, led the crew working in the heading from the cast portal
of the tunnel. The tunnel was worked simultaneously from the West
Portal and from two vertical shafts, where men and mules were
lowered down in large buckets. When the men "holed through" from one
point to the next, a celebration would be held, fueled by a barrel
of bourbon whiskey, compliments of Captain Johnson, the contractor.
Fights would often break out over who was the first through and thus
entitled to the gold watch which accompanied that honor. When the
crews from the east portal and shaft number one met, a local
newspaper reported that the workers "having knocked the wall of rock
out between them, proceeded to knock each other out." Tempers flared
and knives flashed, bit reports conflict over whether anyone died in
that particular melee.
Such was the life at the Big Bend
Camp, where men worked hard and lived hard, and where law-and-order
was a concept that belonged to the world outside the mountain
In this setting, John Henry stood
out as a well-respected leader, a driver who could swing his hammers
harder and faster and longer than anyone else throughout the 12-hour
shift, who could more than hold his own in the camp brawls and card
games, and by the strength of his reputation guarantees the safety
of his woman, who would often come to the tunnel for him at night,
according to several accounts.
The Great Bend Tunnel where John Henry worked, is located under
the Big Bend Mountain at Talcott, WV and was constructed during the
time period of 1870-1873. It remained active for more than 100
years, until its closure in 1974. All trains now use the Big Bend
Tunnel which was constructed in 1930-1932 and is located just beside
the Great Bend Tunnel for east/west rail traffic.
Tunnel, located in the state of Massachusetts, is a marvel in
engineering and construction.
It is 25,031 feet long, almost five miles. Until 1916, it was the
longest tunnel in North America.
It is 34 feet wide and 20 feet
high. At the time it was large enough for two sets of train tracks
A central vertical shaft was dug,
which is 1,028 feet from the mountain surface above down to the
It was built simultaneously from
the east side of the mountain range and west side. When the two
sides were joined in 1873, the deviation of the two sides was less
than one inch.
The tunnel is still in active use-
but only one set of tracks because the train engines and cars are
larger today than they were in the 1800's.
The tunnel was started in the early
1850's and completed in 1874, two years after the completion of the
Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia. 800 to 900 men worked on the
project over 20 plus years. Almost 200 were killed from explosions
and accidents, with more through illness and disease.
It was the first major tunneling
work in the United States. Its importance is due not so much to this
as to its being literally the fountainhead of modern rock-tunneling
technology. The work was begun using methods of tunneling almost
unchanged during the previous centuries, and was completed twenty
years later by techniques which were, for the day, almost totally
mechanized. The basic pattern of operation set at Hoosac, using
pneumatic rock drills and efficient explosives remains practically
Walter Shanley, the Canadian
contractor who ultimately completed the Hoosac, reported in 1870
(the same year that the Big Bend Tunnel construction was started),
after the drills had been in service long enough to develop
efficient methods of use, that the Burleigh drills saved about half
the drilling costs over hand drilling. The per-inch cost of machine
drilling averaged 5.5 cents, versus 11.2 for hand work.
Was the Steam Drill That
raced John Henry, A
A key question
is- was the steam drill that raced John Henry, a Burleigh? We do not
know for sure, but there is a high probability. For example:
Timing and Dates: The initial
Burleigh rock drill was invented and built in 1866 and used at the
Hoosac Tunnel soon after. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1874.
The drill was in use at the highly publicized Hoosac during the
construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia- from 1870 to
1872. A sales representative of the Burleigh Rock Drill Company
could have come to the Big Bend Tunnel construction site with a
drill rig in the 1870 time frame.
Highly Effective- The Burleigh was
the first practical mechanical rock drill, which became the standard
for rock drilling in construction. It was highly effective. When a
group of Massachusetts's legislators came to see a demonstration of
the new drill- it penetrated a block of solid granite, thirteen
inches thick in seven minutes. In the Hoosac tunnel, it penetrated
the rock at a rate of four inches per minute. The drill made the
completion of the Hoosac Tunnel possible.
Widely Used- the Burleigh drill
very quickly became widely used in construction projects throughout
the US and Europe. In addition to the Hoosac Tunnel for which it was
developed, other examples include the Brooklyn Bridge, Union and
Central Pacific Railroad, Sutro Tunnel in Nevada, many mines in the
west, and removing obstructions at Hell Gate.
Finally, the Burleigh Drill was the
prototype of all succeeding prison type drills, which, came to be
known generically as "Burleighs", regardless of the manufacturer.
This is to say the drill used at the Big Bend Tunnel could have been
a Burleigh type of drill, bit not necessarily manufactured by the
Burleigh Rock Drill Company.
The Big Bend Railroad tunnel is on
the CSX railroad line which runs East and West along the Greenbrier
River in West Virginia. A short distance from the tunnel to the West
the Greenbrier joins the New River, and becomes part of the New
River. The rail line continues North along the New River, which then
becomes the Kanawha, and the Ohio. Originally, the Kanawha section
of the river, was also known as the New River. The rail line leaves
the river at Cincinnati on the Ohio River and eventually reaches
Chicago. The Ohio joins the Mississippi River, which flows into the
Gulf of Mexico.
Many geologists believe that the
New River is the second oldest river in the world, with the Nile
River in Egypt being the oldest. More recently, some even believe
the New could be older than the Nile. Both rivers flow from South to
North which is very unusual in geology around the world.
The New River has as its headwaters
in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Apparently, there was an
ancient river which followed the same route called the Tyre. It
preceded the rise of the Appalachian Mountains, which is one of the
oldest mountain ranges in the world. As the mountains gradually
rose, the river continued to cut a path through them, forming what
is known today as the New River Gorge. The railroad line was carved
from the steep banks of the gorge along the river.
If the New River is in fact the
second oldest or oldest in the world, why then is it called "New".
The following is an extract from page 353 of a book titles- "History
of Summers County"- referenced earlier.
"The principal streams of the
county are New River, Greenbrier and Bluestone. New River has its
source in North Carolina, and runs through the entire length of the
county, some thirty-five miles from the Virginia line to Fayette
County line, from south to east, and on which is situated the cities
of Hinton and Avis at the mouth of Greenbrier River. New River is a
continuation of the Great Kanawha, but is named New River form the
from the mouth of the Gauley to is source. It was first discovered
by explorers in the upper valley, and was supposed to be a "new" or
undiscovered stream, when in fact it was really a continuation of
the Kanawha, and has its source in the mountains of North Carolina.
A number of theories have been entertained as to how it received its
name. One by Major Hotchkiss was that a man by the name of New had a
ferry across it; but the generally accepted theory is that it was
taken by its discovery to be a new and unexplored stream at the
point first reached by its explores, and that it was a new, and,
therefore, unknown stream."
What would have been called the
"upper valley" of the New River, would be the headwaters region in
Western North Carolina and Virginia. The flow of settlers from the
coastal areas, tended to be along river routes which have their
headwaters in the Appalachian Mountains and flow from West to East
eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. In Virginia, examples are the
Potomac, Rappohannock, James, and Roanoke Rivers. Interestingly,
several of these names are taken from Indian names.
There was also a flow of settlers
to the Southwest down the Shenandoah Valley along the general route
of what is now Interstate 81.Probably in the early 1700's when the
first settlers reached the New River, they encountered a river
unknown to them, which flowed North and eventually West away from
the Atlantic coast from which they came. This therefore was a "new"
river to them, and possibly a new route to the west