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John Henry statue headed for restoration

TALCOTT, W.Va. -- His eight-foot frame has been pierced by at least nine gunshots and dented by a dozen more.

He lost a limb and later had it reattached after being chained to a truck and dragged down W.Va. 3 -- an incident that nearly cost him his head.

He has suffered the indignity of being whitewashed and repainted more times than his caretakers care to remember.

Even as a statue, John Henry, the legendary steel-driving man, has faced more than his share of adversity. But now, after 40 years of standing sentinel atop Talcott's Great Bend Tunnel, the statue is getting some long-overdue restoration work, after which he will move to a more secure, vandal-unfriendly home.

By July 13, when Talcott begins its annual John Henry Days celebration, the refurbished statue should be standing watch, nine-pound hammer in hand, on a new pedestal at a new site -- the entrance to the Great Bend Tunnel in the town's new 26-acre John Henry Historical Park.

Welder Larry Moorman, vice president of the John Henry Historical Park Association, will restore the statue in his shop.

"I'll be glad to have the statue off the mountain and in the park, where it's safer," said Bill Dillon, a Talcott native, local historian, and member of the park's development committee. "Up there, unprotected and right next to the road, he was in a perfect place for vandals to pull over and be mischievous."

"The mean kids would whitewash the statue, and the good kids would clean it up," said Steve Trail of the Summers County Historic Landmarks Commission.

The Hillsdale-Talcott Ruritan Club was responsible for raising funds to place the eight-foot-tall, three-eighths-inch thick bronze statue of John Henry in a small roadside park atop the tunnel. Among those donating to the monument was singer Johnny Cash, the man who wrote and recorded "The Legend of John Henry's Hammer." Cash chipped in $500 to get the statue placed in the roadside park.

 In December of 1972, the statue, produced by Michigan sculptor Charles O. Cooper, arrived at the tunnel standing atop a flatcar to which it was secured with binding straps.

Dillon said the statue was the product of Cooper's imagination, and was not modeled after a particular person or drawing.

"He's got such a determined face," Dillon said. "I hope we won't be able to see any sign of the bullet holes, after Larry covers them."

On Wednesday, a crew from Union Concrete, the firm doing earth-moving work in the new park, secured straps to the statue's neck and shoulders, and unbolted its connection to its stone pedestal.

As crew member Aaron Moody worked the controls to a truck-mounted crane, the statue rose clear of the pedestal, and slowly swung into space. Using a rope tied to the statue's legs, Scott Hall guided the sculpture to a nearby flatbed trailer, where it was eased into the prone position and secured for the trip to Moorman's shop.

In about 1870, an African-American laborer named John Henry is said to have taken part in, and won, a rock-drilling contest against the operator of a Burleigh steam-powered drill at the Great Bend Tunnel. The victory reportedly saved a number of rock-drilling jobs at the 6,500-foot-long construction site, and became the inspiration of numerous songs and folk stories. Building the tunnel saved the railroad from having to lay track along a 13-mile dogleg of the Greenbrier River.

In the 1920s, researchers from West Virginia University and the University of North Carolina interviewed Talcott area residents who said they remembered Brown working at the tunnel and taking part in the contest, causing them to conclude that the John Henry story may have been more fact than legend.

Other researchers have concluded that John Henry was a member of a Virginia prison work gang, and that his steel-driving tunneling experience took place in Virginia or Alabama.

In 1996, during the John Henry Days celebration in Talcott, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a new John Henry stamp as part of its American Folk Hero series.

Plans call for the John Henry Historical Park, now in its first stage of development, to eventually include an amphitheater, picnic area, rest area with historical displays, hiking and biking trails and a small rail loop on which a steam locomotive would pull a several cars.

Dillon said public contributions will be needed for the park to be completed. Memorial bricks carrying up to three lines of print, each containing 16 characters, are being sold for $100 each. "But anything people can send, even if it's just five or ten dollars, will be put to good use," Dillon said.

Donations may be sent to John Henry Historical Park Steering Committee, in care of the Hinton Area Foundation, at P.O. Box 217, Hinton, WV 25951.  For information, call 304-832-6317.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.

 

 


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