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This marker commemorates the legend of John Henry, "the Steel-Drivin' Man" who was likely a former slave who was among the hundreds of incarcerated black men who died while building railroad tunnels due to inhaling small pieces of rock. The legend of John Henry suggests that he was renowned during his life for his speed as a steel-driver and willingly worked so fast in order to defeat a new machine that might take his job that he perished from exhaustion. Recent work by historian Scott Reynolds Nelson reveals the likelihood that Henry perished as a result of the exploitive nature of the convict labor system. Henry used a hammer and steel drill to create holes for explosives in order to create railroad tunnels. This dangerous work was often reserved for black convicts, hundreds of whom perished from inhaling the fragments of rock that filled the air when they blasted tunnels.


  • Front of the John Henry marker which displays an overview of the folklore and its impact on history.

John Henry is believed to be a former slave who was arrested and placed in jail and forced to work as a steel driver for the railroad in the 1870s. Incarcerated African Americans were a leading source of labor in the dangerous work of building railroad tracks and tunnels through the mountainous regions of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. 

According to legend, John Henry took it upon himself to race a crew working with the newly-invented steam hammer. Although the steam hammer was inefficient at this time, the legend suggests that workers like John Henry feared the loss of their jobs. Like all legends, it is unknown if this race actually took place or where it would have occurred and some argue that it happened at Big Bend in West Virginia or Lewis Tunnel, Virginia. Others suggest the race was held in Leeds, Alabama, at either the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway. In likelihood, there was no race and the funeral song of African Americans that mentioned John Henry was not meant to praise the concept of working oneself to an early grave but rather a form of subtle protest. 

The legend goes that John Henry was significantly faster than the steam hammer and all of the workers celebrated as he was victorious. However, due to exhaustion and stress, Henry collapsed to the ground with his hammer in his hand. The story of John Henry later became a folk tale that was popular among workers fearing the loss of their positions owing to mechanization. 

1 “Education: Heritage Discovery Center.” Larger than Life Folk Heroes- Making a Living - Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center, Heritage Discovery Center, 2013, www.jaha.org/edu/discovery_center/work/folk_hero.html.
2 Parks , Abby. “John Henry: Hero of American Folklore.” Folk Renaissance, 23 June 2014, folkrenaissance.com/98/.