Heroes & Champions

John Henry: The Steel Driving Man

A West Virginia Legend

retold by

S.E. Schlosser 

Now John Henry was a mighty man, yes sir. He was born a slave in the 1840's but was freed after the war. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, don't ya know. And John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.

John Henry, he would spend his day's drilling holes by hitting thick steel spikes into rocks with his faithful shaker crouching close to the hole, turning the drill after each mighty blow. There was no one who could match him, though many tried.

Well, the new railroad was moving along right quick, thanks in no little part to the mighty John Henry. But looming right smack in its path was a mighty enemy - the Big Bend Mountain. Now the big bosses at the C&O Railroad decided that they couldn't go around the mile and a quarter thick mountain. No sir, the men of the C&O were going to go through it - drilling right into the heart of the mountain.

A thousand men would lose their lives before the great enemy was conquered. It took three long years, and before it was done the ground outside the mountain was filled with makeshift, sandy graves. The new tunnels were filled with smoke and dust. Ya couldn't see no-how and could hardly breathe. But John Henry, he worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14-pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday. No one else could match him.

Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had a steam-powered drill and claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20-pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled two seven foot holes - a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine-foot hole.

John Henry held up his hammers in triumph! The men shouted and cheered. The noise was so loud, it took a moment for the men to realize that John Henry was tottering. Exhausted, the mighty man crashed to the ground, the hammer's rolling from his grasp. The crowd went silent as the foreman rushed to his side. But it was too late. A blood vessel had burst in his brain. The greatest driller in the C&O Railroad was dead.

Some folks say that John Henry's likeness is carved right into the rock inside the Big Bend Tunnel. And if you walk to the edge of the blackness of the tunnel, sometimes you can hear the sound of two 20-pound hammers drilling their way to victory over the machine.


You can read more West Virigina folktales in Spooky South by S.E. Schlosser.



he was a good man too


intresting story goood jajajajajajajaja :D

iloove this story.its like so true and its just great iwant to know more about his life

great story

he is real

I used to love this story too, until someone in my class at school added at the end: "and the very next morning, they went out and turned on the steam engine and it went right back to work. Day after day after day..." So yeah, John Henry won, but only in the short term.

omg i liked it to

omg i liked it to

funny story mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn


lookin good johnny booy

he died?


so sad :(

awesome man

HeHe LovE the story I recommend it For ANy school TeAcHers because im student

he was a very good man

this guy is my hero!!

awsome storie

I need to read this story again


My brother was named John Henry because he was born with his fist in the air ready to hammer. That was one strong baby. I like this site.

I am not sure of the Big Mend sight for John Henry. I have seen the statue of John Henry above the Tunnels on the side of the mountain at Talcott, WV

he is the best person who ever lived


cool man!

Wonderful.............best rendition of the story I've seen.


Ooh lala John sounded like a beasty beast

i loved john henry like if he was my brother oh ya he is lol


like it

Great story

Great story

like it


wow cool story

wow cool story

i like it

i didnt like the story cuz its kind of sad for me cuz the slaves :'(

Wow that is so sad. It's so funny when you read it out loud to yourself in cowboy slang!!!!! :)

i really like the story



That is not true,noone can chop through a mountin. But it's cool.

Too bad John Henry died. I would have LOVED! to hear another of his stories!

great but sad story. :(

You all need to listen to Johnny Cash's song about John Henry. It's on his Live from Folsom Prison album. 1968. Great song....

It is true a person can chop into a mountain.
how do you think we got tunnels in th mtns.
the old type drill was a still chisel and a hammer
you drove and chipped and blasted the rock. Oh and you can read his intials in the tunnel. We all are slaves to something but now our master is the dollar.

I think he is pretty cool. I think he should not have not tried had to beat that machine


Great story

awesome beautiful wonder ful great joyful storyyyy !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

I love this story so much!! John Henry is the best!! Rock on!!

if there are graves located in and or around Big Bend Tunnel where would they be located ???

It's a really great story

Cool story

ilove this stuff


This is so cool!!! I've read this story TONS of times and never got bored of it!

I love this story

cool ok

I thought it was cool that he could use a 14 pound hammer with onne swing

great story

i don't like how he died

this is awesome! John Henry was probably the strongest man living at that time period

quite interesting. I loved it!

Man that was cool and sad.I can't do that.

John Henry can go toe to toe with Chuck Norris and still keep his cool. oh yeaaaaaa

That was A great story but what state is the Big Bend Mountain in?

Just watched the Jeopardy challange with "Watson" the computer pitted against two human players. My first thought was Man vs Machine and the greatest story ever told on that subject. John Henry, "The Steel Drivin Man" vs the steam powered drill.

it didn't tell what day he died but it was good!


I just read 'John Henry Days' by Colson Whitehead - to the story it's a revelation for present days!

That was soooo sad :(

he was a good person like he said "a man aint nothing but a man" and its true

I just met a former Marine whose name is John Henry. He told me there are 241 verses to the song about John Henry!!

john henry is a slave

WOW NOW I KNOW WHAT TO DO OR COME ON TO FIND MY RESEARCH AND THATS WHAT I BEEN LOOKING FOR JUST TO HAVE MORE INFORMATION ON MY JOHN HENRY REPORT FOR BLACK HISTORY MONTH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

very weird story...

great story but i watched the cartoon way better it showes his life and you get to see him grow up

i like this story it's cool

he is awesome!!!!!!!!!!!! oh ya

so sad

he was a very good man he is my hero

great story this dude is awsome!

i like it

awesome, love the way he makes up

Both thumbs up :]

john henry must have been a good man to do that for his fellow workers. he died but his legacy still lives on.:) i could read this story and not get tired of reading it. i loved it!

He was the best man alive

i luv dat story it is my fav wowwwww :0


i love this story because john henry was so young.

I loved the story so did my dad.I'm so sad he died. :( :(


this story is awsome


I love this story

cool story

best story i ever read

i like it

good story


good story

this story is amazin but what about paul bunyan


amazing omg

I like it I read this story 3 times this school year including now.

That story just shows that if you put your mind to something, you can do it. But it is sad how he dies, but at least he had won.

I first heard the John Henry story when I was around age 7 or 8 I'm 50 now,believe it or not this story of The Strong Steel Driving Man help develop the great work ethics that I have to this today! More than just an folktale...The John Henry song sounds pretty good too!

This was an AWESOME story i loved it. i dont think it was sad but he was a HARD worker i might read it again i dont think it was weird either. every kid should read this, but i still like Paul Bunyun or what ever.

love that storie

I known a man that his grandfather was there the day the story of John Herny The Steel Drivin Man happened and is father is still alive to this day


I admire John Henry. I have a statue made from coal right next to this computer. He is an inspiration.


Famous characters Ghost Stories Folktales


Schlosser, author of the Spooky Series

About the Author: S.E. Schlosser

S.E. Schlosser is the author of the Spooky Series by Globe Pequot Press, as well as the Ghost Stories deck by Random House.  She has been telling stories since she was a child, when games of "let's pretend" quickly built themselves into full-length tales acted out with friends. A graduate of both Houghton College and the Institute of Children's Literature, Sandy received her MLS from Rutgers University while working as a full-time music teacher and a freelance author. Read more

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