John Henry Statue
Talcott, West Virginia
Poor John Henry. No one knows where he's buried, and no one really knows which of several possible John Henrys was the John Henry. The town of Talcott skirts the issue by proclaiming itself "Home of the John Henry Legend."
As a folk hero he's second-tier; ahead of Pecos Bill at least, but far behind Paul Bunyan. Ask someone what John Henry did to become famous, and they'll get it wrong. And while someone finally did build a statue honoring him, other folks can't seem to stop peppering it with buckshot, or yanking it off of its pedestal with their pickup trucks.
John Henry, the story goes, was a former slave who hired on with the C&O Railroad to build a mile-long tunnel through Big Bend Mountain. Henry was a "steel-drivin' man," meaning that his job was to hammer steel bits into the rock where dynamite could then be placed. When the company brought in a steam-powered drill to do the job, John Henry vowed to defeat it or die trying. The drill drove its bit into the rock nine feet. Henry drove his 14 feet. He had won -- but then he immediately died, and the machine replaced him anyway.
As an inspiring tale for the working everyman, his story obviously leaves something to be desired. So John Henry has instead been embraced by the African-American community, and attracted the unpleasant attention of steamed-up drillheads...
Sculpted by Charles Cooper, unveiled in 1972 by the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club on the 100th anniversary of the completion of the tunnel, the statue is life size and weighs almost three tons -- John Henry was a big man. It depicts him as an intense, brooding hulk, stripped to the waist, hefting a sledgehammer.
Up close, one can see that John Henry's face is battered and disfigured,and that his chest, upper arms, and shoulders are pitted. Rifle bullets? Pickaxe holes? Impact damage from being dragged along Hwy 3? John Henry has on occasion suffered the indignity of being doused with white paint -- a vandalism whose message frankly escapes us.
A friendly, wonky-eyed guy in a nearby Bob Evans told us things were looking up for John Henry -- that the barbed wire that once surrounded him has been removed, and that there are plans afoot to move him down the mountain and into a park in town. We hope that it happens soon. His current location, atop the entrance to the Big Bend Tunnel, may be geographically meaningful -- but the tunnel has been abandoned for years, and, frankly, there's nobody around up here. John Henry would fare better with street lights and traffic to discourage his foes and encourage his fans. The steel drivin' man needs company.