• SumoMe

This tale fired the hearts of Americans in the Allegheny in 1872 and continues today. The story-tellers glorified the Herculean efforts of a freed slave named John Henry. One of the earliest African-American role-models, he was proudly proclaimed in old-time spirituals and work songs. Over the years, his legend grew, people all over the nation came to respect his memory, and learn of his great deed: pitting his own flesh and blood against the gears and wheels of an encroaching modern machine.

They say that everything about John was extra-large, like his hammer, his appetite, his belief that he could move mountains; it is even believed he weighed 33 pounds at the time of his birth. At at time when African-Americans were beginning to make their place in the country, he was a towering example of leadership and determination.

Henry worked for the railroad as a spike driver, and he wielded two 20 pound hammers, one in each arm, doing the work of two men. He worked all day and into the night, driving spikes and expanding the Westward railroads. However, the very same technology he worked to spread and improve would soon be his demise.

During the time of the steam engine, industrialization boomed and in came an influx of technology, taking over the jobs of otherwise hard-working Americans. Henry’s boss, the owner of the railroad, used to laugh at his efforts, claiming his skills would eventually become moot when the new steam driver would take over his job. Henry stayed silent and kept driving spikes.

That inevitable day came where Henry’s boss replaced his human workers with the new steam-powered spike driver. All the men looked to Henry in order to see what he would do. Henry challenged his boss — Henry and his two hammers versus the machine; mano-a-mecho. Laughing, Henry’s boss told him he was out of his mind. There was no way any one man could do the work of the entire team of men the machine was anticipated to replace.

The crowds grew, a quiet hush gathered among the crowds all wondering what would happen. The rules were simple, teh steam engine went down one side of the tracks, Henry down the other. The spike driver that went the furthest by sundown would win. If Henry won, the team of spike-drivers and track-layers would keep their job, and if Henry lost, the machine could take the job over. Laughing again, the crew boss started up the machine.

Once the race began, it was indeed a mighty sight. Henry and the machine continued on neck-and-neck for hours, and Henry’s two tree trunk arms showed no sights of slowing. With each SLAM SLAM SLAM of Henry’s 20 pound hammers in each arm, the crew saw the sinking sun falling just a hair at a time. After 5 hours of continuous hammering, Henry’s determination grew so much his sweat was evaporating before it hit the ground from the heat of his body.

As the sun fell lower and lower into the sky, and miles of track were hammered, Henry summoned up everything he had to keep going. Henry began to pull away from the steam machine, slowly at first, faster still, until he was in such a rage that he was hammering at twice the speed of the steam machine. The crew boss was in as much awe as the team.

Eventually Henry was a quarter-mile ahead, and as soon as the sun fell, so did Henry, dying from cardiac arrest. John Henry’s last act on the planet was single-handedly beating the machine created to replace him and other spike-drivers. To this day, a historical marker sits where he died right there by that railroad track, marking one of the greatest feats of human determination ever.

For over a century, John Henry’s name has become synonymous with pure grit, fearlessness, strength, and unmatched confidence. Whether you want to believe he existed or not is up to you. Some doubt the story of John Henry, some doubt John Henry ever existed at all. Even if Henry was never real, living with courage, determination, and passion is always alive and well.