John Henry: The Steel Driving Man

Categories: Driving

John Henry, a USA champion credited for outdoing a steam hammer in a race only to die later, has dominated many stories, songs, novels and plays. Henry was also a legendary illustration of 1800s US worker population. Contemporary illustrations portray Henry as hitting rail barbs; earlier versions show him when having been born with his hands holding a mallet forcing rock blasting openings. Making holes on rocks is an element of the procedure of digging up railroads cuttings and tunnels.

The real John Henry was born a slave (1840-1850), employed by the railway as a manual worker following the Civil War.

He died in his 30s widowing a young beautiful wife plus a baby. “John Henry was among prisoners who were shipped in to perform rail road construction jobs. The prisoners mainly labored at the Lewis Tunnel. The company contracted to lay the rail road was time barred to complete the tunnel work as at 1872” (Stein, 1969, p. 14). Majority of versions depict john Henry as being a black male representing the marginalization of all USA workers occasioned by modern changes in America.

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John Henry’s legend is commonly regarded as a classic depiction of the vanity of resisting the 1800s technological advancements that upturned conventional material labor duties. labor activists interpret the story as showing that majority of skilled employees are marginalized owing to firms being less interested in workers’ welfare and health and more interested in production and efficiency. Even though john Henry depicted himself as being more effective than the machine, he labored to death ands the machine nevertheless replaced him (Burt, 2001, p.

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17). Henry is reported as having been born strong and huge weighing thirty three pounds.

The man grows to be the mid 1800s renowned steel man to put up railroads across the western mountains. In a bid to protect both his employment and that of fellow workers, upon acquisition by the railroad proprietor of a steam-propelled hammer to substitute his majority blacks crew, Henry invites the proprietor to a challenge between the machine and Henry himself. Henry outperforms the hammer but dies from exhaustion. A particular myth claims that john Henry represented a 1840s Missouri-born slave and that he fought the famed battle against the machine in the course of the West Virginia Talcott Ohio and Chesapeake railway.

Roy C. Long, railway historian, established that many Big Bend Tunnels existed in the course of the Ohio and Chesapeake railway. In addition, numerous black males named ‘John Henry’ worked at the railway. No written proof was unearthed to confirm the existence of such a machine-man battle. Scott Reynolds, a College of William and Mary professor, contends that a Big Bend Tunnel steam machine contest could not have happened owing to the absence of written proof to the same from railway records.

To date, no written evidence has been discovered to clear the air as regards the occurrence and venue of such a duel (Bolden, 2003, p. 63). In his 2006 book “Steel Drivin’ Man”, Scott nelson utilizes John William Henry, who might have worked in Virginia’s Lewis Tunnel and died therein. Nelson argues that the lifeless body of John W. Henry was taken to the penitentiary at Virginia and interred at a group grave next to a whitish workhouse situated near a railway. “Several loopholes regarding the proof that nelson’s candidate was the mythical figure exist.

Identifying a male by the name ‘John Henry’ out of the in excess of two hundred convicts laboring at Lewis Tunnel was very easy” (Bolden, 2003, p. 25). The name combination, ‘John Henry’ was common in the 1800s. It is surprising that nelson did not identify in excess of one candidate. Having identified a male having ‘Henry’ as his name is inconsequential. At no instance in the legend or ballad is it indicated that ‘Henry’ represented a family name. In addition, no evidence has been forwarded to identify Henry as having been a steel driver.

The character could have worked as a shaker, cook, mucker, water boy, sharpener or porter. In the event that Henry was a steel driver, his little figure (5’ 1-1/4” tall) negates the concept that the character was hired as a steel driver. Testimonial evidence has it that bob Jones was Lewis Tunnel’s finest driver. “No proof exists to support the occurrence of a particular Lewis Tunnel competition between machine and a man. Nelson’s claim of a group competition is feeble. It is more likely that hand boring was employed in heading, the place where horizontal openings are needed.

Steam boring was employed on the work surface where vertical openings are required” (Burt, 2001, p. 19). Such a situation would not consist of a competition. It has been concluded that Lewis Tunnel steel borers were only employed on work surfaces and thus they were incapable of performing horizontal drilling. Nelson is close to misinterpreting the application of a contractor for provision of a steam borer boiler. Nelson envisages two side-bi-side hole rows with one having been drilled by a steam borer and the other by use of hands. He implies that both rows are manually drilled. This interpretation is restricted.

Drilling involving two men is referred to as ‘double jack’ usually shortened to ‘double’ and converted into a verb. It has not been conclusively determined that john Henry passed away at Lewis Tunnel. The man might have run away as most prisoners did. Evidence indicating that dead prisoners’ bodies were returned to Virginia Penitentiary is feeble. Nelson mentions a stipulation between the Rail Company and Virginia Penitentiary that demands for one hundred dollar fine should not be returned. “It was agreed that contactors would specify a bond that pledged that convicts returned safely.

Nelson seems to regard taking back a corpse as a secure return; thus corpses were returned to evade the penalty stated in the bond” (Naden, 1980, p. 38). It is more probable that dead prisoners were interred at the Lewis Tunnel cemetery. Testimony confirming this is present and the arrangement seems economical. Nelson asserts that boxes in john Henry’s grave had small sand layers separating them. He implies that sand was deposited at burial time. The supposed grave where john Henry was interred was discovered at the location where Virginia Penitentiary stood. Archaeologists concluded that the earth around the grave wasn’t sandy.

A ballad architect would not regard this arrangement as burying in sand. The concept of “White House” is odd since it is neither a common or anticipated burial location. The concept is also attractive since it brings in mind the Washington white house. John Henry would turn to be a prominent figure to be interred herein. The White House theme was incorporated to attract singers by making them desire for the prominence of their hero. Nevertheless, numerous John Henry’s versions don’t mention the “White House” but state that john Henry was interred in a ‘new’ burial pace.

Controversial peculiarities are improbable to have occurred in the initial version. The idea that numerous editions indicate that John Henry was interred elsewhere confirms that the White House theme was probably an element introduced during transmission of ballad. White house could have been a derivative of earlier “white road’ concepts existent in a particular edition of john Henry. “White road” may have implied the sandy highway going into Sand Ridge graveyard in Alabama. “The graveyard is sandy and borders the railroad tracks. A grave with no markings, probably a 1887 black male’s, is located outside the hedge.

John Henry Dabney, who probably battled a Dunnavant steam mill, could have been interred here” (Pursue, Center, 2005, p. 39). Nelson’s assertion that Cal Evans dislocated from Lewis to Big Bend Tunnel and promulgated John Henry legends is likely erroneous. As a rail road employee, Evans itinerary proves that he never went to Lewis Tunnel. Johnson documents Evans as saying that he never met john Henry but merely related legends as he obtained them from secondary sources. Additionally, nelson does not comprehensibly and coherently provide a review or existing literature on John Henry.

Nelson’s account doesn’t tackle Chappell’s and Johnson’s arguments supportive of West Virginia’s Big Bend Tunnel as john Henry’s location. Nelson also does not mention Dr. Garst’s argument in favor of Alabama’s Coosa and Oak as john Henry’s location. John Henry’s existence was centered on power; the personal raw potency that could not be wrenched from an individual; and weakness signifying the lowly social position the character was placed at. “He inspired and was a model for the many railroad laborers who also toiled in deplorable, uncompromising situations.

John Henry’s narration was also a rebellion anthem or laborer’s attempts at denouncing the inhuman situations surrounding Henry’s work life without attracting rebuff or penalties from their bosses” (Stein, 1969, p. 41). John Henry’s narration also assisted the laborers to envisage their escape from the Tunnel. Other analysts argue that john Henry’s persona was centered on power and sex. Some depictions show john Henry as a man opened to own sexual desires, traversing rural areas driving own steel. Louis W. Chappell points out that sexual imagery is abundant and clear in john Henry’s narrations.

Within the mount the atmosphere was blistering and thick and the room cramped. Numerous laborers were semi-nude or completely nude. Thus the workers chanted sexually –laden songs concerning their work and sexual hero to console them in those hard days (Burt, 2001, p. 63). To suggest that john Henry challenged the machines is absurd since the situation was grim- life-and-earth struggle. Henry, as well as all other laborers, was obligated to oil at the Lewis Tunnel. Majority of all workers passed way within five to six years. Silicosis, occasioned by inhaling of crystalline rock dust, made the laborers succumb.

Louis Chappell (1933) and guy Johnson’s (1929) books discredit the myth that john Henry competed with a Big Bend Tunnel steam borer. The two writers’ efforts failed to identify any substantial evidence despite interviewing about twelve people who labored in building the tunnel. A single man, whose evidence was feeble, alleged to having had witnessed the competition. The rest stated that such a challenge could not have occurred, otherwise they could have heard about it. References Bolden, T. (2003). Afro-blue: improvisations in African American poetry and culture. Literary Criticism. Burt, D.

S. (2001). The biography book: A reader’s guide to nonfiction, fictional, and film biographies of more than 500 most fascinating individuals of all time. Greenwood Publishing Group. John Henry – the story – Alabama. Retrieved on 2nd April 2009 from http://www. ibiblio. org/john_henry/alabama. html Naden, C. (1980). John Henry, Steel Driving Man. London: Routledge Pursell, C & Center, L. (2005). A hammer in their hands: a documentary history of technology and the African culture. London: Routledge Stein, R. (1969). Steel Driving Man: The Legend of John Henry. New York: Blackwell Publishers

Updated: Jul 07, 2022
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John Henry: The Steel Driving Man essay
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