“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Leeds in Jefferson County, Alabama — The American South (East South Central)

John Henry

Legendary ‘Steel Drivin’ Man’

John Henry Marker image. Click for full size.
Photographed By Tim Carr, July 12, 2009
1. John Henry Marker
Inscription.  The story of “steel drivin’ man” John Henry is one of America’s most enduring legends. The strong ex-slave became a folk hero during construction of the Columbus & Western Railroad between Goodwater and Birmingham. He drilled holes for explosives used to blast tunnels. According to legend, he was involved in a race against a steam-powered drill that its manufacturer claimed could do the job faster than a man. Witnesses said after the all-day contest that he and his heavy hammer cleared substantially more feet than the steam drill. Versions of the blues song ‘John Henry’ relate how the powerful man won the contest but died from exhaustion, his “hammah” in his hand. He supposedly was buried nearby. Although other states claim John Henry, noted Georgia folklore researcher John Garst found evidence that the event occurred near Dunnavant on September 20, 1887, at either the Big Oak Tunnel or Coosa Tunnel, two miles apart.

Source: “Historic Birmingham & Jefferson County” By James R. Bennett.
Topics. This historical marker is listed in these topic lists: African Americans
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Arts, Letters, MusicIndustry & CommerceNotable EventsRailroads & Streetcars. A significant historical date for this entry is September 20, 1887.
Location. 33° 32.634′ N, 86° 32.352′ W. Marker is in Leeds, Alabama, in Jefferson County. Marker is on Thornton Avenue NE, on the right when traveling east. Located in the yard of the old Leeds Depot. Touch for map. Marker is in this post office area: Leeds AL 35094, United States of America. Touch for directions.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within 5 miles of this marker, measured as the crow flies. The Depot (here, next to this marker); Leeds Benchmarks In History (approx. 0.3 miles away); Shiloh Cemetery (approx. 0.4 miles away); Jonathan Bass House Museum (approx. 1.1 miles away); Congressional Medal Of Honor Recipients (approx. 1.4 miles away); Rowan House (approx. 2.6 miles away); Sidney Word Lee (approx. 4˝ miles away); Mt. Hebron School (approx. 4.8 miles away). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Leeds.
More about this marker. Dunnavant is south of Leeds off of Route 25, 5.1 miles from this marker.

The tunnels mentioned on the marker are not accessible to the public. It is an active railroad. Do not trespass.
Related marker. Click here for another marker that is related to this marker. This link is to the Big Bend Tunnel marker for the C&O Railroad that also claims John Henry.
Also see . . .
John Henry 32˘ Stamp image. Click for full size.
By David LaFleur for the U.S. Postal Service, 1996
2. John Henry 32˘ Stamp
1. The Legend Of John Henry. “ Spencer said that he personally witnessed John Henry’s death. He described how John Henry fell into a faint near the end of the all-day contest on September 20, regained consciousness, said that he was blind and dying, and asked that his wife be summoned. His wife came and cradled his head in her lap. He asked, ‘Have I beat that old steam drill?’ Measurements gave John Henry 27½ feet and the steam drill 21.” (Submitted on September 11, 2009, by Timothy Carr of Birmingham, Alabama.) 

2. “John Henry” Guitar and Vocals by Big Bill Broonzy. 3½ minute YouTube video.

“John Henry” Guitar and Vocals by Big Bill Broonzy
(Submitted on September 21, 2019.) 
Credits. This page was last revised on August 6, 2020. It was originally submitted on September 6, 2009, by Timothy Carr of Birmingham, Alabama. This page has been viewed 3,230 times since then and 371 times this year. It was the Marker of the Week September 22, 2019. Photos:   1. submitted on September 6, 2009, by Timothy Carr of Birmingham, Alabama.   2. submitted on September 21, 2019, by J. J. Prats of Powell, Ohio. • Kevin W. was the editor who published this page.
Editor’s want-list for this marker. A wide shot of the marker and its surroundings • A photo of the depot • Can you help?

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Sep. 30, 2023