Great Bend Tunnel Construction
Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club
The Ruritans are an organization dedicated to community service in rural areas. The Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club was formed in 1968 with the express purposes of establishing the John Henry Historical Park and to promote and foster community development in Hilldale, Talcott, and Summers County.
The Ruritans, many of whom were retired C&O Railway employees, local businessmen, and area citizens, coordinated with local historical groups, schoolchildren, media outlets, West Virginia political officials, and national celebrities to collect hundreds of small donations for the commissioning of the John Henry statue and the establishment of the original roadside park on the mountain above the Great Bend Tunnel.
The park was opened in 1972 on the one- hundredth anniversary of the opening of the tunnel and the birth of the John Henry legend. The opening ceremony included the grand entrance of the John Henry statue through the Great Bend Tunnel on a special train.
Great Bend Tunnel Construction
Construction of the Great Bend Tunnel aka the Big Bend Tunnel began
The primary contractor was Capt. William R. Johnson who was educated as a civil engineer and served in that capacity in a Confederate regiment during the Civil War. He employed 800- 1,000 workers at various trades. Most of the workers were either African-Americans newly freed from enslavement, Irish immigrants, and other nationalities. Once completed, the tunnel was 6,450- feet in length with a slight curve at the east end due to an engineering error.
The work began at the west end of the tunnel. The first thirteen months of construction was done in Monroe County, West Virginia as Summers County was not created until 27 February, 1871. The tunnel was built by the determination of men and boys using man and mule power. Construction began with three shafts drilled to the tunnel's floor. The shafts were used for three purposes: to carry out rocks and dirt as work progressed, to enable the crews to work on different headings, and to allow much need fresh air into the tunnel. There was a total of six working headings including the portals. There were other crews that cleared and graded the approach to each portal.
African-American captains and crews
Men used hammers designed for the task of driving long drill bits into the rock for the explosives to be placed to blast the red shale and solid flint rock day in and day out. Dualin, a new volatile explosive mix of nitroglycerin and sawdust or wood pulp, was used. On 10:00 a.m. on 31 July 1872 the heading between shaft one and two were driven together allowing fresh air to traverse the entire tunnel.
After this all work was suspended and all parties repaired to headquarters where a barrel of whiskey was rolled out for all to partake. Fortunately, there were few knives, pistols, or fists flourished with no causalities reported. Upon completion, the interior of the tunnel was lined with timbers rather than brick. This oversight and inadequate ventilation proved to be costly to lives and equipment. Both of these mistakes were addressed in later years.
Working in these conditions brought sickness, death, and the ever present possibility of being maimed for life. The three primary dangers were silicosis,
Other dangers abounded in the workers' camp lives as with all places where men and boys were assembled in large numbers living in close proximity to one another. They lived in wooden shanties built along the C&O's right of way. Money, while not abundant to the workers, was enough for them to afford their share of whiskey which some of them partook in at every opportunity that presented itself. The combination of strong men and whiskey normally resulted in fist fights, stabbings, and shootings. Bear in mind this was a recurring issue every payday. Another danger was dishonest individuals willing to separate the honest workers money from them using any means available. It was not uncommon for workers that had just got paid to be found dead either in the woods or floating in the river.
Due to inadequate information during the bidding process, Captain Johnson and his partners ended up going broke. His partnerstook advantage of the bankruptcy law and he was advised to do likewise. He refuse to file and later when he was a SUccessful coal operator he repaid all of his creditor's principal and interest. In appreciation of his honor, his creditors presented him with a silver bowl bearing the inscription "an honest man is the noblest work of God."
Ross Merle Dillard Alphonso Evnans:
The Man Behind the Statue
Ross Evans (22 December 1898 - 28 December 1985) was the youngest son of Calvin and Ada Virginia Cave Tyler Evans. He was born at Talcott, West Virginia near the Great Bend Tunnel where he lived his entire life. Ross and his wife Berta reared eight children. All of his children received a college education and went on to become responsible, respected citizens.
His grandmother Mariah was part Indian (tribe unknown). She worked as a maid and companion to Dr. James P. Rogers on his plantation at Earlysville, Virginia.
His father Calvin Evans was born into slavery 3 September 1852. In 1869, at the age of 17, Calvin left home for West Virginia. He worked several railroad jobs until he was semi-disabled due to a railroad- related accident. On 4 July 1876, he married Ada Tyler at Ruckersville, Virginia. They eventually settled in Talcott where they purchased a house near the Great Bend Tunnel. After his injury, he and Ada opened the firstrestaurant in Talcott. To paraphrase a quote from Ross, during the hard times of World War I, his father gave away more meals than he sold thus causing the restaurant to close sometime in 1917. Calvin was a man of strong character whom people of all colors knew, trusted, and respected to the extent that they allowed their children to stay all summer with him and his family.
His mother Ada Tyler Evans was born into slavery 9 August 1858 on a plantation near Ruckersville, Virginia. Her father was a white man. Unfortunately, his name is not known. After her birth, her mother Nellie married Wash Tyler. Ada was a woman of strength and conviction. She cared for eight children, livestock, a garden, and the house while Calvin was away at work all week. She was a devoted Baptist and taught Sunday school for 30 years. She organized the committee to construct the Second Baptist Church at Talcott and raised the most money for that purpose. She was honored by a plaque hanging to this day on the wall of the church. She was called the Mother of the Church.
Ross was a favorite child from birth and he received attention from everyone. His early life was full of outdoor activities including hunting, fishing, or just roaming the surrounding mountains. He started work at an early age and worked a lot of different jobs during that time. When he was fourteen, his father arranged for him to be a camp cook for a deer hunting party on Bald Mountain. This side occupation would continue for most of his working days. He began his railroad career in 1917 as a cook and ended his career 46 years later as a passenger train porter for the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O). He met Berta Mae Barnett during the summer of 1920 and married her the follow year on 7 September 1921 at her family farm at Springwood, Virginia. Berta shared his love of the outdoors and they both spent as much time as possible together in that pursuit. Berta was a midwife in the community helping women deliver children of all colors. At the 1973 C&O annual shareholders meeting, Ross and Berta were guests of honor at the White Sulphur Springs Hotel along with three other employees and their wives representing some 35,000 Chessie system employees for outstanding service to fellow workers and their communities.
Ross, a charter member and Finance Chairman of the Hilldale-Talcott Ruritan Club, spearheaded the fund drive for the John Henry statue and the overlook park above the tunnel. Singer Johnny Cash was one of the first that donated to the project along with then Secretary of State and future West Virginia Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, local bankers, businessmen, school children, and many other donations from the people of all walks of life. The likeness of this statue is of Ross-a hardworking, dedicated, determined, and trustworthy man.
Talcott to visit my syster, Icie. Ross came down to my home in Springwood, Virgina, to visit me. He also came down to the little town in Virginia where I was teaching. I was so proud of Ross because he dressed so much style. He even carried an umbrella. He made a great impression on the people there.
-Berta Barnett Evans, wife of Ross Evans
When I was a youngster, I had the privilege of working for Ross Evans. I hoed corn, cleaned out weeds, helped him catching chubs (minnows) out of Howard's Creek below the White Sulphur Hotel in White Sulphur Springs and helped him set trot lines in the Greenbrier River. Ross was an excellent fisherman and caught many large catfish from the trot lines he baited with Howard's Creek chubs.
At this time, most people thought nothing of explaiting a youngster's labor Whether it was in the form of underpayment or no payment. Ross was an exception. He not only paid a fair wage and never tried to take advantage of you but he also cooked you lunch. Until this day, I can still smell and taste the delicious hamburger that he fixed.
One early afternoon, I met him while he was checking his chubs that he kept in Hungards Creek below his home. I inquired if he was needing any help that week. He told me that he was going out of town on a trip paid for by the railroad to model for the John Henry statue.
This has been a long time ago and the original
conversation we had is faded. But, to my knowledge,
Ross explicitly told me he was the model of John Henry.
-Michael E. Cales
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans • Fraternal or Sororal Organizations • Railroads & Streetcars.
Location. 37° 38.973′ N, 80° 45.998′ W. Marker is in Talcott, West Virginia, in Summers County. Marker is on West Virginia Route 3/12 0.2 miles east of Huston Road, on the right when traveling east. On the grounds of the John Henry Historical Park. Touch for map. Marker is at or near this postal address: 243 Briercliff Rd, Talcott WV 24981, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. John Henry In Fiction (here, next to this marker); John Henry (a few steps from this marker); The Legend Of John Henry (within shouting distance of this marker); Concrete & Cut Stone Foundation (within shouting distance of this marker); Tunnel Construction Technology Improves (within shouting distance of this marker); Why The Tunnel Was Built (about 300 feet away, measured in a direct line); Here Stood a Statue of John Henry (about 300 feet away); Big Bend Tunnel (about 300 feet away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Talcott.
Credits. This page was last revised on January 22, 2021. It was originally submitted on January 20, 2021, by TeamOHE of Wauseon, Ohio. This page has been viewed 45 times since then. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4. submitted on January 20, 2021, by TeamOHE of Wauseon, Ohio. • Devry Becker Jones was the editor who published this page.