If you haven’t been able to tell, I believe that recalling history is an important part of education. I have been focusing mainly on war stories and heroes who took a beating and lived to tell the tale, but not all heroes become heroes because of bloodshed. If you ever find yourself by the Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, listen closely for the sound of steel on steel and the whispers that tell the legend of John Henry.
Born a slave in 1840, but released as a free man after the war, John Henry played a pivotal role in the construction of the first railroad for the Chesapeake and Ohio (C+O) Railroad. He was 6 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds, which was huge back in the 1800s when the average man was a half of a foot shorter than that. He was said to be the strongest man working the rails.
The railroad was moving right along, due largely in part to John Henry’s outstanding speed and strength. No one could keep up with him no matter how hard they tried. Soon, a looming problem began to creep closer and closer to the workers: the Big Bend Mountain. This mountain stood directly in the way of the upcoming railroad. The company decided it would cost too much to go around the mountain, and chose to go straight through it instead.
According to legend, thousands of people lost their lives in the mountain because of the dust kicked up by the smashing of rocks. Every day, John was said to dig 10 to 12 feet deep with his 14-pound sledge, the smoke from the rocks not phasing him at all. This is where the legend splits into two stories. The Disney animated short “John Henry” tells that C&O planned to replace the jobs of workers with a new steam drill, and revoke the land they were promised on the other side of the mountain. American legend says that it was a salesman who came to prove that his steam engine was better than the common worker. In both stories, John Henry challenged the machine to a drilling contest, but in Disney’s story, the land for his family and coworkers was on the line.
The challenge began and the machine seemed to be besting John Henry’s speed and strength. Refusing to give up, John Henry was said to then pick up two 20-pound hammers and swing away. For 35 minutes he worked and worked. By the end of the challenge, the steam drill had dug a 9-foot hole, and John Henry had dug two 7-foot holes — a total of 14 feet. In the Disney version, the machine gave out, and John Henry muscled his way through the entire mountain, securing the land for his loved ones.
The crowds went wild as John Henry raised his two hammers high. They cheered so excessively that they hardly noticed when John Henry toppled to the ground. Immediately, silence followed as the foreman ran to his side, Disney said Henry’s wife was the one who cradled him. John Henry died of a burst blood vessel in his brain.
When I think of heroes, I think of George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and anyone who has served in the military. I usually don’t stop to think about who might be a personal hero to others. John Henry, although still talked about today, wasn’t a “traditional American hero,” he was a hero to those who looked up to him on the railroad. He inspired those who worked beside him, and those who knew him had nothing but great things to say about him. Whether he gave his life for “the promised land” or simply to show that human will bests technology, he gave hope to others who stood by him. Remember that no matter where life may take you, you will always have the opportunity to inspire others around you.