Henry's Home Picture

The railroad I stopped at the other day, Infrared version: [link] and sister shot: [link] ....

-Like other "Big Men" such as Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and Iron John, John Henry also served as a mythical representation of a group within the melting pot of the 19th-century working class. In the most popular story of his life, Henry is not born into the world big and strong. He grows to be the greatest "steel-driver" in the mid-century push to erect/extend the railroads across the mountains to the West. The complication of the story is that, as machine power continued to supplant brute muscle power (both animal and human), the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black driving crew. In a bid to save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the inventor to a contest: John Henry versus the steam hammer. John Henry wins, but in the process, he collapses and dies. While many don't attempt to explain his cause of death, the cause varies among those who do. Some cite it as a heart attack; in other versions of the story, John Henry suffers from a stroke. Other versions say he dies from exhaustion. Finally, in one version, he survives.

In modern depictions John Henry is often portrayed as hammering down rail spikes, but older versions depict him driving blasting holes into rock, part of the process of excavating railroad tunnels and cuttings. In almost all versions of the story, John Henry is a black man and serves as a folk hero for all American working-class people, representing their marginalization during changes entering the modern age in America. While the character may or may not have been based on a real person, Henry became an important symbol of the working class. His story is usually seen as an archetypal illustration of the futility of fighting the technological progress that was evident in the 19th century upset of traditional physical labor roles. Some labor advocates interpret the legend as illustrating that even the most skilled workers of time-honored practices are marginalized when companies are more interested in efficiency and production than in their employee's health and well-being. Although John Henry proved himself more efficient than the steam-drill, he worked himself to death and was replaced by the machine anyway. Thus the legend of John Henry has been a staple of American labor and mythology for well over one hundred years.


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