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John Henry statue.

John Henry Statue

Field review by the editors.

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 couldn't seem to stop peppering it with buckshot, or yanking it off of its pedestal with their pickup trucks.

According to legend, John Henry, formerly enslaved, hired on with the C and O Railroad, which was digging 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 machine to do the job, John Henry vowed to defeat it or die trying. The machine drove its bit into the rock nine feet. Henry drove his 14 feet. He had won -- but the effort caused him to immediately die, and the machine replaced him anyway.

John Henry.

As an inspiring tale for the laboring classes, John Henry's story obviously has some flaws, although he was embraced by the African-American community. So on December 28, 1972 -- the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Great Bend Tunnel -- the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club unveiled a bronze likeness of the steel drivin' man, sculpted by Charles O. Cooper. The statue is life-size and weighs 750 pounds -- John Henry was a big man. It depicts him as an intense, brooding hulk, stripped to the waist, hefting a sledgehammer.

For years barbed wire surrounded the statue. John Henry's face was battered and disfigured, and his chest, upper arms, and shoulders were pitted. Were the holes made by rifle bullets or a tunnel-digging pickax? John Henry had on occasion also suffered the indignity of being doused with white paint -- a vandalism whose message frankly escaped us.

All of that ended in 2012, when the statue was restored, repainted, and moved to the new John Henry Historical Park, a geographically meaningful spot outside the entrance to the Great Bend Tunnel. It is a far more visible and visited location than his old remote roadside perch up on Big Bend Mountain along Highway 3. It suggests that all that the John Henry statue really needed to survive was some company, a lesson that would have been lost on John Henry the fiercely independent man.

John Henry Statue

3262 State Hwy 3, Talcott, WV
Moved to new location in June 2012. Now stands west of town, on the south side of Hwy 12/Hwy 3, in John Henry Historical Park. The statue is down near the entrance to the Big Bend railroad tunnel.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Alderson Lion, Made of JunkAlderson Lion, Made of Junk, Alderson, WV - 8 mi.
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In the region:
Bridge Walk: 88 Stories High, Fayetteville, WV - 34 mi.

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