He was 6 feet tall, weighed about 200 pounds, and thought a 20-pound hammer was light. As the story goes, John Henry, an American folk hero, raced against a steam-powered hammer and won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand. He has been the subject of countless songs, stories, plays, and novels and plays an integral part in railway folklore, as focused on in the Danville Pediatrics’ “All Aboard” train exhibit at the Community Arts Center.
John Henry, among other “big men” such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, serve as a mythical representation of a group in the 19th-century working class. The most popular version of the story depicts John Henry born into the world as large and in-charge, weighing 330 pounds. According to the story, he grows to be the greatest steel-driver in the land during the movement to build railroads across the mountains in the West.
The owner of the railway purchased a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his driving crew, but John Henry, strong and mighty, challenged the owner and his steam hammer to see who was faster — John Henry himself or the steam hammer. Legend has it that John Henry beat the machine, but was so fatigued that he collapsed and died.
In almost every version of the tale, John Henry is pictured as a black man and serves as a folk hero for all American working-class people, demonstrating their marginalization with the coming of the modern age. While the character John Henry may or may not be based on a real person, Henry became a significant symbol of the working class. He demonstrated that even though he proved himself more powerful than the steam-drill, he died in his efforts and was replaced by a machine anyway, leaving his story to be the staple of American labor, according to some.
Modern portrayals depict John Henry hammering down rail spikes, while older adaptations go as far as showing him born with a hammer in his hand, excavating railroad tunnels along his journey. The “All Aboard” exhibit focuses on comparing numerous versions to the classic tale, identifying differences in the story based on time, region and communication of the story.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the railway folklore stories are the hundreds of versions that can be found in literature, music, film, television, and even corresponding race horse names. John Henry even was featured on the 32-cent stamp in 1996. Visitors have the chance to listen to folk, blues and rock performances of the song as well as follow along with lyric sheets hanging on the walls.
The “All Aboard” exhibit also explores the tale of another railway classic, Casey Jones, whose dramatic death came when he tried to stop a train. This made him a hero. Casey Jones was immortalized in a ballad originally composed by Wallace Saunders, an African-American engine wiper for the Illinois Central Railroad. Thanks to the song, Jones’ legend has been celebrated for more than a century.
No matter what the story, big or small, the legends of railway live on and the “All Aboard” exhibit at the Community Arts Center makes sure to find a way for visitors to learn about them as part of the rich railway history.
Jenny Jacoby is director of marketing at the Community Arts Center.
Wednesday through Sunday through Feb. 27
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday
Community Arts Center
Cost per person: $6/adults; $4/students, kids 18 and under, and seniors 65 and over
All proceeds of the exhibit benefit the Community Arts Center.
Field trip information: To find out how to schedule a group tour or school field trip, contact the Community Arts Center by e-mail at email@example.com or call (859) 236-4054; or log on to www.communityartscenter.net.