Talcott, West Virginia: Home of the John Henry Legend

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I have a special connection with Talcott, West Virginia.  My father was born and spent his early years growing up here.  When I was young, we would drive back over the hills to Talcott, check out the tunnels, then drive up to his grandfather’s (abandoned) farm in the hills above town.  It had been a few years since I had been back, so I made certain to drive through, with some time to spare.

Sometime in your past, you probably heard an old folk tale about John Henry, the “Steel-Drivin’ Man”.  The John Henry legend was born here in Talcott, during the digging of the Great Bend Tunnel.  My father swore he once new a guy who swore he personally knew John Henry, so therefore it must all be true.

In case your recollection of the story is a bit rusty, here it is:

 Sometime around 1870, the C&O Railroad was making its way through the Appalachian Mountains. The workers were making good progress, until they came upon Big Bend: a mountain too tall to go over, and too big to go around. There was only one other choice: cut a tunnel through more than a mile of solid rock.

The project took 3 years, and a thousand workers, many of whom lost their lives while working in the thick, black dust, deep inside the mountain. The job was dangerous, tiring, and thankless, but one man could do it better than anyone else: John Henry. The legend says he was a giant: six feet tall, 200 pounds (which was quite big for the 1870’s). He used a 14 pound hammer, and was able to drill through 10-20 feet of rock, in a 12 hour day. He was the best man on the project.

One day, a salesman came to town, touting the abilities of a new steam powered drill. The workers weren’t about to be put to shame by some mechanical contraption, so they pitted their very best man against the modern machine.

And what do you know, the man won! The legend says that John Henry managed to drill two 7 foot holes in the time it took the machine to drill a single 9 foot shaft. The steam drill kept clogging up, and had to be cleaned, giving Henry the advantage.

At the end of the race, man had triumphed over machine… almost. John Henry collapsed, according to some accounts, out of sheer exhaustion. He died with the hammer in his hand.  Other versions of the story say he died that night in his sleep, while other accounts say he died inside the tunnel later on, during a rock collapse.

Talcott’s homage to its most famous laborer is modest.  There is a statue of John Henry (or at least, a big, strong, hammer-wielding man) in John Henry Park — a wide spot at the side of the road, directly above the entrance to the tunnel he helped dig.  Local rednecks have dishonored his memory repeatedly, using his face for target practice with shotguns.

John Henry Park also has an old caboose (which has been boarded and locked up for years, but at one time served as a visitor’s welcome center).  And that’s about it.

Was John Henry a real person?  An article by the Three Rivers Travel Council explores that possibility.

Drive down into town, and at the first opportunity, take a right.  Make another right onto the gravel that borders the railroad tracks.  It’s okay, you’re allowed to drive on it.  The gravel road leads back to the entrance of the old tunnel (the “Great” Bend Tunnel, on the right) and the new one (the “Big” Bend Tunnel, on the left).

When I used to visit here as a kid, the entrance to the old tunnel was overgrown and difficult to reach.  You’d have to climb through weeds and briars to find it.  It’s much better now, probably because several years ago, the folks in Talcott came up with an ambitious plan to create a park at the tunnel entrance (and even move the John Henry Statue down here).  It will probably take years or decades more to raise the money necessary to make that dream come true, but at least the first step — clearing the entrance to the tunnel — has been complete.

Go ahead and walk up to the entrance of the old tunnel…

… and look inside.  An eerie fog hangs in the air, about 3 feet off the ground, and the bottom of the tunnel is completely flooded.

During a visit here, about five years earlier, I was able to see the light at the end of the tunnel — this time, I was not.  This could mean there’s a collapse somewhere in the middle, or maybe the sun simply wasn’t shining on the other end.

The newer tunnel (although not new by any account; it was completed in 1932) is still in use, and as such, it’s probably on CSX property.  If that’s true, you’re probably trespassing if you’re standing where this picture was taken.  I wouldn’t expect any trouble, though.  While I was hanging out and taking pictures around the tracks…

… a train approached.  I waved at the conductors, and they gave a friendly toot of the whistle.  It hardly seemed like they were upset I was there.

Create your own souvenir!  If a train approaches during your visit, lay a few coins on the track.  They will be thoroughly smooshed by the train.  Just don’t do it if you don’t have time to safely clear the tracks before the train arrives.  Also, keep an eye on the spot where you put the coins — they will fly off the tracks when the train hits, and you might have trouble finding them.

In this tunnel, you can see the light at the other end.  Also note the recessed area in the wall: it’s not a door, but rather, a hole big enough to help you avoid an oncoming train.

Once you’re done visiting the entrance to the tunnels, head back into town for a little more exploring.

There’s not much else to see in Talcott, except for this old church (one of three in town)…

… and an oddly-designed round house.  I think my father’s boyhood home was next door to the round house, but I’m not certain.  If anyone who reads this page remembers the Woodrums, drop me a line!

There’s also an old convenience store that’s just junky enough to be picturesque.

I’m betting it won’t be open at 10 a.m. on Sunday.

As another coal train rattled through town, I watched the sun set.  Another sleepy summer day in Talcott was coming to a close.

You can also check out my previous visit to Talcott.  Also, check out johnhenrydays.com for updates on the park project.

Follow WV Route 3 into Hinton, then on to Shady Spring.  When you reach US 19, head north.  I spent the night at the Microtel Inn on US 19 at I-64.  It’s one of the newest and nicest hotels in Beckley, and most reasonably priced.

Note: This trip was first published in 2008.

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