Monday, September 24, 2012


This is a story about freedom. This is a story about doing the impossible. It’s a story about faith and courage and the willingness to sacrifice everything for what you believe in. In other words, it’s the story of John Henry.

John was born a slave and, for most of his life, he and his people toiled in heavy chains for their masters. Then came the war and when the dust had settled on that terrible ordeal, John and his fellow slaves were free. Having lived so long without freedom, John knew how valuable it was, and swore he’d never be a slave again. So saying, he took the very iron chains he had worn on his wrists while in slavery and had them melted down and made into a twenty-pound hammer which he would use to make his way in the world. His hammer became his prized possesion and he was often heard to say “I’ll die with this hammer in my hand.”

After the civil war, the nation needed to be healed, rebuilt. One way that this was achieved was with the building of a railroad from coast to coast. But building a railroad takes hard work, and strong men to do it, so every man was told that if he finished the line, he’d be given fifty acres of land to settle down on. That was the good news, of course. The bad news was that the line was barely halfway done and most of the men were already worked to exhaustion.

That’s when John showed up.

For John was a big, strong man, and not just on the outside. For under his callused hands and powerful muscles, a fire was burning inside John Henry. The fire of a man who would do anything to preserve his freedom. And fifty acres of land all for himself was a kind of freedom he wasn’t about to give up on. And that’s how John started swinging that big hammer of his for the railroad company, and helped the other workers to finish the line.

But then, just when it looked like the line would be completed and every man would get his reward, the owners of the railroad decided that the men working on the line weren’t doing it fast enough and they sent in a ringer: A steam-powered drill which they said could pound in nails faster than any man…but they hadn’t reckoned with John Henry. And he wasn’t about to let his fellow workers walk away with nothing. So he challenged that steam drill to a race: Whoever could lay the most track the fastest would win.

The other workers cheered for John as the race began. With a strength that some said was greater than any human could possess, John pounded those spikes as fast as he could, and by the time he got to the foot of the big mountain, he was well ahead of the drill. The men cheered, but soon they saw that the race was not yet over. For as John leaned against the rock, exhausted from the effort, the drill was actually able to dig through the mountain itself, creating a tunnel and passing John Henry in the process.

Well, most men would’ve given up…but John Henry was not most men. He called to his fellow workers and they tossed him another hammer. And with one twenty-pound hammer in each hand, John started beating away at the mountain until both he and the drill were lost to sight. Quickly, the onlookers raced to the other side of the mountain to see who would come out first…

It was John Henry!

Again the men cheered and hailed John as their hero staggered out of the tunnel ahead of what was left of the drill. But their cheers died down when they saw John fall to his knees. The hammers fell from his hands. He lay prone on the ground. His wife, Polly, ran to him and called out for water…but it was too late. With his last ounce of strength, he reahced out a mighty hand for his hammer. And, as he always promised he would, John Henry died with his hammer in his hand.

Ever since that day, people have been telling stories about John Henry. You may have heard that, when he was a boy, he ate six dozen eggs and five loaves of bread for breakfast every morning, or that he pulled the moon down to earth so his mother would have more light to sew by. John became more than a man to the people who told his story. They shared legends and sang songs about the man who died with his hammer in his hand.

But the truth is John Henry was no god. No mythical figure. He was just a man. A man who believed no price was too high to pay for freedom. And, because of his sacrifice, his fellow workers did finish the railraod and they got their fifty acres each. And there wasn’t a one of them who didn’t thank John every day for the gift he gave them. The greatest gift of all. A gift that many of us were born with but manage to take for granted every day:



If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • John Henry (2000) In the 1940's, the Disney Company created animated shorts about Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed, and in the 60's there was a short about Paul Bunyan. Then, in 2000, there was a theatrically released animated short based on another American legend. Narrated by Alfre Woodard, it was animated in an old-fashioned style to make it look like a classic film from the 40's. 

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