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John Henry's Race with the Steam Drill

The legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe, his blue ox, says they competed with a steam-powered chainsaw. Folklore says Bunyan and Babe lost to the new-fangled device.  

       The Dunnavant Valley has claim to a similar story related to the Coosa railroad tunnel through Double Oak Mountain. However, studies indicate our legend is true!  

       The Coosa tunnel was built in the 1880’s through solid rock by driving a long steel shaft into the rock face, by hand, with hammer blows. The hole was filled with dynamite and detonated. For the Coosa tunnel, this “steel-driving” was repeated over and over for a half mile. John Henry Dabner was a railroad steel-driver and he was a mountain of a man. His story is recorded in a song by Tennessee Ernie Ford. 

       According to historical research, the salesman of a steam-powered drill pitched his device to the engineer building the Coosa tunnel. The engineer was skeptical so a competition was proposed. John Henry agreed to compete with the machine for a large prize if he won. A huge crowd came to watch the battle. When time was called, the steam drill was 21 feet into the rock, but John Henry’s drill was 27 feet. Man beat machine!

       But the story has a poignant ending. John Henry fainted at the end of the all-day contest. He regained consciousness briefly and called for his wife. He told her he was blind and weak, symptoms of a heart rupture. John Henry asked her if he, “had beat that old steam drill.” She assured him he had, and with that contentment, he passed away with his head cradled in her lap.  

       So, when you get out your Ernie Ford vinyl album (what, you sold it at the yard sale?), you can hear how a local hero took on the high tech of his day, and won!

Published in Dunnavant Valley Neighbors, January 2022

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