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Scouts boost John Henry's steel-driving legacy

Chip Ellis
Indiana Boy Scouts load crushed rock in a wheelbarrow to spread on a new trail at John Henry Historical Park in Talcott.
Chip Ellis Scouts Jeremy Risk (center) Brandon Oblazney (left) and Spencer Pittman, all of Indiana, load gravel in a wheelbarrow to spread on a new trail at John Henry Historical Park at Talcott.
Chip Ellis Scouts wave to the crew of a CSX locomotive as it exits the Big Bend Tunnel, adjacent to John Henry Historical Park, where an 8-foot-tall statue of the park's namesake stands.
Chip Ellis Scouts from the Reno, Nev., area clear brush from a new hiking trail at John Henry Historical Park in Talcott.
Chip Ellis Scouts from the Reno, Nev., area clear brush from a new hiking trail at John Henry Historical Park in Talcott.
Chip Ellis Indiana scouts Logan Witt (left) and James Haydock haul a cut limb from a trail site at John Henry Historical Park in Talcott in Summers County.
Chip Ellis Bill Dillon of the John Henry Historical Park's development committee helps Scout Matt Franz of Chicago try his hand at driving a steel drill rod.

TALCOTT, W.Va. -- John Henry, the legendary steel-driving man, got a helping hand from wheelbarrow-driving and shovel-wielding Boy Scouts here on Tuesday, during the final day of community service work at the National Boy Scouts Jamboree.

Tuesday marked the fifth day that 120 Boy Scouts traveled from the Summit Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve to Talcott to spend time building trails and clearing brush at John Henry Historical Park on the edge of this Summers County town.

The 26-acre park is located next to the entrance to the 6,000-foot-long Great Bend railroad tunnel where Henry, in 1870, is said to have outperformed a Burleigh steam drill. The feat provided guaranteed three years of job security for a small army of black and Irish tunnel drilling crews working here.

Talcott was chosen by the U.S. Postal Service as the setting for a 1996 release of a postage stamp series commemorating John Henry, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill as "American folk heroes." But Bill Dillon, a member of the park's governing committee, and a number of other historians are convinced Henry's story is much more fact than fiction.

"The contest took place right over there," Dillon told the Scouts as he pointed to the south portal of the Great Bend Tunnel, during an assembly that preceded Tuesday's work project.

"John Henry hammered out 14 feet in the same time it took the stream drill to make 0 9-foot hole," Dillon said. "There were no steam drills in the tunnel after that. Eight crews all worked by hand for the next 39 months to finish the job."

Dillon said John Henry's wife, Polly Ann, is buried in a cemetery in Talcott's Pie Hollow, and invited to show Scouts the site after their day's work was done.

At John Henry Historical Park, Scouts are grubbing out, draining and placing crushed rock atop nearly 8,000 feet of trails, which lead visitors past a creek, a wetlands area, and an abandoned rail trestle, while also connecting the park to Pie Hollow and the town of Talcott.

An 8-foot-tall metal statue of Henry now stands atop a pedestal near the entrance to the Great Bend Tunnel. Last year, the statue was moved to the site from a vandal-prone roadside park along W.Va. 3 atop the tunnel.

"I didn't know there was a real place where the contest happened," said Brandon Oblazney of Indianapolis, Ind., who was among the contingent of Scouts from Indiana, Illinois and Nevada working at the park on Tuesday.

"I heard about John Henry while watching 'American Heroes and Legends' on television," said Erik Proce of Waukegan, Ill., during a break from clearing brush from a trail site. "It's good to be working on a project that's connected to him."

This year's National Scout Jamboree is the third in which Luke Curry of Lebanon, Ind., has taken part. Community service projects weren't a component of previous jamborees, he said, as he hacked away at an uneven section of trail with a pick.

 "But it's a wonderful idea," he said. "It fits into Scouting's idea of giving back. And it's great that we can do it with so many people. We can really make a change."

In Summers County, one of nine West Virginia counties to receive volunteer labor from the 40,000 Scouts attending the Jamboree, 18 projects, ranging from landscaping and beautification work in Hinton to painting a senior citizens center, have been completed.

"We've had more than 2,000 Scouts and AmeriCorps people working here," said Summers County Commissioner Jack David Woodrum. "That's about one-seventh of the population of Summers County working here for five days. At this park, which I see as a tourism-related economic development project, it would have taken us two to five years to get the work done that the Scouts have completed in less than a week."

While no projects organized under the Boy Scouts' Reaching for the Summit Community Service Initiative have been canceled due to electrical storms and heavy rains, some work was suspended early or diverted to an alternative, indoor site.

"For any work that didn't get completed, 250 AmeriCorps members are staying here through July 31 to finish up, with the help of local volunteers," said Aly Goodwin Gregg, a spokeswoman for the program.

In all, Scouts attending the Jamboree donated more than 300,000 hours of community service to 350 projects in Southern West Virginia.

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

 


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