During the 1870s, workers constructed the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad through the New River Gorge. The C&O was considered one of the most difficult engineering feats of the time; contractors building the railroad were said to have “buried a man and two mules” for every mile of track laid.Built mainly by black labor and Irish immigrants, most of the work was done by hand, using black powder and mules for the heavy stone work. There is a story of crews actually blasting enough stone in the lower gorge that it temporarily dammed the New River.
Several miles upstream from ACE Adventure Resort, at Talcott, W.Va., and just upstream on the Greenbrier River, the story of the American folk hero John Henry was born.
The site was the “Great” Bend Tunnel (there is a new tunnel there now known as the “Big” Bend Tunnel, built in 1932). Big Bend Mountain was too tall to go over, and too big to go around, so the railroad engineers decided to build a 6,500-foot long tunnel through solid rock. It took three years and thousands of workers to build it.
The legend of the “Steel-Drivin’ Man,” has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays and novels that vary with different accounts. But according to railroad historian Roy C. Long, though he could not find any documentary evidence, he believes on the basis of anecdotal evidence that the contest between man and machine did indeed happen at Talcott, W.Va.
He found the presence of all three (a man named John Henry, a tunnel named Big Bend and a steam-powered drill) at the same time at that place.
Read the story as told by S.E. Schlosser – it is a short story well worth the time.