Thursday, March 4, 2010

John Henry; Anatomy of a Painting


On the left is a photo of the Oak Tunnel in Alabama. The arrow points to the spot where legend has it that John Henry drove a steel into the rock that still remains.

So, after consulting John Garst, John Henry expert and reading about the Alabama location, I used the Oak Moutain tunnel as the background for my painting.

Whether the tunnel was completed when John Henry died is not important but having John Henry die on these train tracks would make a powerful image. C.C. Spencer claimed to witness John Henry's death and it is his description that I used to create the death scene in my painting:

(Click photo to enlarge) This touching scene uses the triangle
of three people- if you draw a line from each head you can see the triangle.

To compliment the scene there are three workers in the background. The workers watching from a distance also add perspective.

Here are some facts about the Alabama location quoted from John Garst:

Chasing John Henry in Alabama and Mississippi: A Personal Memoir of Work in Progress
Tributaries: Journal of the Alabama Folklife Association
Issue No. 5 2002 pp 92-129 Synopsis

In my opinion, the data gathered by Guy Johnson and Louis Chappell, and published in their books of 1929 and 1933, respectively, make it very unlikely that John Henry raced a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel. These workers made a massive effort, focused on Big Bend, and failed to find anything definitive, despite the fact that they were able to interview about a dozen men who had worked on the construction of that tunnel.

Only one of these men claimed to have seen the race and his testimony was very weak. Others testified that it could not have happened at Big Bend - they would have known about it if it had. Johnson received letters from C. C. Spencer, F. P. Barker, and Glendora Cannon Cummings, all of whom placed John Henry and his race with a steam drill in Alabama during the 1880s.

Cummings stated that John Henry beat the steam drill and died at Oak Mountain in 1887, an event that her uncle witnessed. Barker said that John Henry was at "Cursey Mountain" while he, Barker, was driving steel on Red Mountain (which lies along the southeastern edge of Birmingham, Alabama). Spencer's letter was especially rich in detail, but Johnson was frustrated by the failures of his attempts to verify some of Spencer's facts. Spencer mentioned "Cruzee" Mountain, similar to Barker's "Cursey," which Johnson could never find, in Alabama or anywhere else. Spencer also named the railroad under construction as the Alabama Great Southern, which exists but does not go over or through a mountain with a name similar to "Cruzee" or "Cursey." These failures caused Johnson to abandon Alabama, in favor of Big Bend, in his unsuccessful pursuit 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 27 1/2 feet and the steam drill 21. Further, he said that John Henry was an ex-slave from Holly Springs, Mississippi; that he took his former master's surname, Dabner; and that he was working for contractors Shea and Dabner when he died. Cummings gave the contractors' names as Shay and Dabney, and a "Jamaica" informant, C. S. Farquharson, gave them as Shea and Dabner.

In fact, Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney was Chief Engineer for the Columbus & Western Railway Company during the construction of their line between Goodwater, Alabama, and Birmingham in 1887-88. He was a Rensellear-educated civil engineer who made a career of railroad design and construction. Captain was his Confederate army rank. He was born in Virginia in 1834/35; raised in Raymond, Mississippi, from about age one; and settled his family in nearby Crystal Springs, Mississippi, after the Civil War. Between Raymond and Crystal Springs lay Burleigh Plantation, which was owned by Captain Dabney's uncle, Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney.

In 1860 T. S. G. Dabney owned 154 slaves, while Philip Augustine Lee Dabney, Captain Dabney's father, owned eight. (Note: Since the publication of the article I have learned that one of P. A. L. Dabney's slaves was Henry, born in 1844. If this is John Henry, he would have been 43 years old in 1887. I'm told that this is a reasonable age for a champion steel driver. - JG) About 15 miles east of Birmingham the C & W line (later Central of Georgia and now Norfolk Southern) passes through Coosa and Oak Mountain Tunnels, which are two miles apart, portal to portal.

Obviously, "Coosa" was intended by "Cruzee" and "Cursey" in Spencer's and Barker's letters. "Coosa" is locally pronounced "Koo'see" and is even spelled that way in some old documents. The discoveries that Coosa and Oak Tunnels exist, that they have railroad tunnels through them, that these were built in 1887-88, that a Dabney was the engineer in charge of construction, that he was from Mississippi, and that his family owned slaves near Crystal Springs lend credence to the testimonies of Spencer, Barker, and Cummings.

Evidently Spencer simply got his Mississippi "Springs" towns confused when he mentioned Holly Springs, which, being near Memphis, is not very close to Crystal Springs, south of Jackson. In addition, there is a strong local tradition among Central of Georgia employees and around Leeds, Alabama, that John Henry raced a steam drill and died just outside the east portal of Oak Mountain Tunnel, between Oak and Coosa Mountain Tunnels. This tradition is as old and strong as that for Big Bend.

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