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Location:


Talcott is located on WV Rte. 3, between two small towns: Alderson and Hinton.  Both of those towns have their own exits off Interstate 64. Follow Rte. 3 until you reach Talcott.  The tunnel entrance is located at the bottom of the hill, while the John Henry statue is near the top, directly above the tunnel.

Click here for a map that can help.

To reach the tunnel entrance, you'll need to turn off the main road and drive alongside the railroad tracks.

 

Tip:
There are other historical accounts of the John Henry story.  You can research them at ibiblio.org.  

 

 


West Virginia's Rails - Talcott, WV

   The tiny community of Talcott would likely be overlooked by the rest of the world, if not for the very tall tale which many believe originated here.  The legend is of a man named John Henry, who won a race against a steam- powered drilling machine.

NEW: I re-visited Talcott in 2008 - Click Here for the update.


John Henry Statue, Talcott, WV

   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 to drill through 10-20 feet of rock, in a 12 hour day.  And all the while, he entertained his fellow laborers with a beautiful baritone voice.  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.


John Henry Plaque, below the statue

   Today, a statue of John Henry stands at the side of Rte. 3, on the hill above the tunnel he helped dig.  It's not in great condition: more than a few bullets have grazed its surface, but it still stands as a testament to the incredibly difficult tunneling task completed more than 130 years ago.


The original Great Bend Tunnel

   After you've paid your respects at the statue, it's time to take an up-close look at the tunnel itself.  Drive down the hill and turn left onto the gravel right-of-way next to the tracks.  Keep an eye out for trains, as you drive back towards the mountain.  You'll find two tunnels: the newer one is still in use, and to it's right, the one of folklore fame. 


The view from inside the newer Big Bend Tunnel

   Local leaders had plans to improve this area, build a park and make it more accessible.  That was a few years back, and I don't know if it ever happened.  Talcott is far enough off the beaten path that it's unlikely enough tourists would ever arrive, to make the improvements pay off.  But maybe it's better this way.


Mossy walls inside the old tunnel

   So after 130 years, has John Henry's work stood the test of time?  It may not be used anymore, but look for yourself: there's still a light at the end of the tunnel, and that means the walls are still holding strong.


The tiny white dot is the other end of the tunnel, more than a mile away.

NEW: I re-visited Talcott in 2008 - Click Here for the update.

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I was at the Great Bend Tunnel today, June 21, 2008. They have not built the park yet. Although it would be a wonderful addition. John Henry Days starts July 11th and all the live entertainment will be performed at the tunnel. It would be great to have had a park to do this at.

--- Angel
 


During the period 1930-32, my grandfather, Harry W. (HW) Gay worked as a C&O Railways supervisor overseeing the construction of Big Bend Tunnel. I am in possession of his original photos of this project, Haley Chisholm & Morris, Contractors, Charlottesville, VA. There are a total of 54 photos each dated with month, day and year on the front and containing typed or handwritten details on the back of the photo. They are amazing and extremely well preserved! The tunnel was completed in 3 years and today we are lucky to get a short stretch of highway completed in this amount of time even though they are void tunneling through a mountain!

--- Roma Adkins


 

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