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.