John Henry is the famous steel driving man of African American folklore, a man who drove steel spikes into rock which were then filled with explosives as part of building railroad tunnels. There are differing versions of the legend of John Henry racing against a steam driven machine and dying in the attempt to outperform it, told in song and folk tales. John Henry may have been based on a real person.
A Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina suggested in the late 1920s that John Henry worked on the Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia built by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad in the 1870s. A witness named Neal Miller claimed to have been a boy at the time when he saw John Henry race the steam engine and win, dying shortly after from exhaustion. The witness’s veracity was supported by members of the community.
Another version of the story claims that John Henry was John William Henry, a convict provided as a leased worker to labor on the Lewis Tunnel, more than forty miles from Big Bend. This version contends that railroad records do not confirm the use of steam machinery at Big Bend, but do state that a steam driver was used in the Lewis Tunnel construction. The ballad also contends that Henry was buried at “the white house” near the railroad tracks, the inference is that the white house is in fact the Virginia Penitentiary, then painted white.
Another story claims that the famous race between man and machine occurred in Alabama, near the Coosa mountain tunnel. Other tunnels in Alabama have been suggested as the site of the race and discounted for various reasons, and claims have been made that the race took place in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia.
Whether or not John Henry really lived and defeated a steam engine – demonstrating the superiority of man over machine – is open to debate. The real point of the story is not that he won the race, but that doing so killed him, if he ever lived at all. His name remains as a designation for an indefatigable worker, and is in addition to the folk songs celebrated in books, films, video games, and festivals.