The legend of John Henry depicts an American folk hero known for his amazing strength and symbolism as an advocate for the working class American during the industrialization of not only Appalachia but the entire United States. During the late 1800s the railroad embarked on its expansion plans to head West over the Appalachian Mountains. John Henry, along with crews of men made up of over 1,000 former slaves and Irish immigrants, was hired to tunnel through the mountain, using hammer and steel rods to cut through the rock. Eventually the railroad management, in its quest for efficiency and speed, brought in the Burleigh's top of the line steam powered drill to replace the crews of men. As the legend goes, John Henry challenged the railroad to a contest pitting his skill and strength using hammer and steel rods against the machine to prove the superiority of manual labor to mechanization and to hopefully, preserve their jobs. John Henry made more progress in a shorter period of time than the machine, however, as the legend goes, he later died as a result of the contest.
The battle did not end with John Henry's death. As a result of his heroic victory over the machine, the crew of over 1,000 men kept their jobs and finished the tunnel. John Henry's legend served as an inspiration to those men finishing the tunnel as they kept the story alive through song. Although the "legend" has been embellished over the years, the reality is John Henry was a real man, hero and symbol of hope. His legend lives on.