top of page

Iron Man - John Henry

The Black America Resource Directory is committed to sheading light on Black Americans who pose the question Did You Know? In our newsletter we explore people that we have may never had heard of. Most importantly their contributions and achievements.

While there may never be definitive knowledge about the steel drivin’ man John Henry, his memory, legend and lore live on in Talcott.

John Henry was among many ex-slaves and Irish immigrants employed to work on the construction of Great Bend Tunnel between 1869 and 1871. These men earned $1.25 a day working by candlelight inside the tunnel.

The famous race between John Henry and the Burleigh Steam Drill is thought to have occurred in 1870 and may have saved numerous jobs from being replaced by machines.

Much of today’s information about John Henry comes from “John Henry — A Folk Study” by WVU history professor Louis Chappell. Chappell conducted interviews in Talcott during the 1920s, many of which still illuminate Henry’s legend. Reports, for instance, verify that John Henry did drive steel with a hammer in each hand as legend suggested.

In 1972, the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club erected the 2.5-ton statue of John Henry overlooking Big Bend Tunnels and interest in the man behind the myth increased. John Henry Days became an established festival in Talcott after the U.S. Postal Service released the John Henry Stamp in 1995.

John Henry represents a strong and authentic figure in American history whose life story still flavors movies, music, theater and national folklore, but for the Talcott community, his life is influential in another way.

Deloris Moorman, treasurer for John Henry Days, says the festival “brings the community together.

“Even though it is a small community and there are not a lot of members of the John Henry Committee,” she notes, “lots of people participate in the parade.”

Moorman has noticed the festival does bring in tourism; some families plan their vacation around the event. She feels it is important to keep what is known about John Henry’s life alive. She remarked, “Some people think he is not real, but they have proof he did exist and that it is a real story.”

The 15th anniversary John Henry Days will be July 9-11 in Talcott. This year the festival will have a permanent music stage for the first time. The John Henry Committee paid for the materials and many of its members volunteered their time and skilled labor. Instrumental in building the stage were Larry Moorman, Larry Jones and Dorsey Garten.

By Sarah Plummer Register-Herald Reporter

  • Jun 28, 2010 Updated Jul 29, 2014