The construction of the Big Bend Tunnel in the early 1870s was one of the largest projects undertaken by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O) as it extended through southern West Virginia. To avoid having to take an eight-mile detour around Big Bend Mountain west of Talcott, the railroad opted to bore a tunnel 6,500 feet in length through the mountain.
Construction of the Big Bend Tunnel began in 1870 but it proved difficult to construct because of the mountain’s hard, faulted shale that resisted drilling and blasting. Once exposed to air, the shale grew brittle and crumbled. Rockfalls killed many workers and mules. In one instance, more than 22 million pounds of rock dropped in one collapse near the east end of the tunnel.
Crews broke through the opposite end of the mountain on May 31, 1872, and the first train passed through later in the year. It was not until February 1873 that the Big Bend Tunnel was fully completed.
Originally lined with timbers, the tunnel was plagued with rockfalls. In one unfortunate incident, an entire train crew was killed by a massive fall. Thereafter, the C&O began to line the tunnel with brick, an undertaking that required the laying of more than six million bricks over ten years.
The tunnel was also outfitted with two ventilation shafts that were spaced 2,000 feet from each portal to clear the tunnel of smoke from the steam locomotives. After ventilation fans were installed in 1902, the shafts were sealed. They were powered by a coal-fired boiler and steam engine at the east portal. A ventilation plant was later added when a new concrete west portal was added in 1917, which extended the tunnel length to 6,560 feet.
A parallel 6,152-foot tunnel was added in 1931 to accommodate the double-tracking of the C&O mainline. The ventilation fans were disabled in the 1950s with the transition to diesel locomotives.
The development of Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) on the C&O mainline in the 1950s led to the centralization of traffic control. CTC, consisting of a series of electronic switches, or interlockings, are designed so that conflicting train movements could not be authorized. A train dispatcher could remotely control signals and powered switches. CTC allowed the C&O to have greater operating and cost efficiencies in operating trains over single tracks with lengthy sidings versus having to maintain double-track setups. In 1974, the mainline in the vicinity of Talcott was single-tracked and the original Big Bend Tunnel was abandoned.
Historical research supports John Henry as one of the thousands of African-American railroad workers who helped construct the C&O mainline through West Virginia. Henry was specifically a steel driver, part of a two-man team that specialized in the hand drilling of holes up to fourteen feet deep into solid rock for the setting of explosive charges. Steel drivers swing a nine-pound hammer, hitting steel drill bits that were held by their steady and trusting partners called shakers who placed and guided the drill bits. The pulverized dust had to be “shook” out of the resulting holes.
According to local legend, the C&O staged a contest at the Great Bend Tunnel to test the viability of purchasing steam-powered drilling machines to replace the human drilling teams. Henry and his shaker faced off side by side with the steam drill and won, drilling both father and faster.
Historical research also supports the notion that Henry died at the Great Bend Tunnel, one of the estimated hundreds of workers who perished in rock falls, malfunctioning explosions, and dust inhalation who were buried at the entrance of the tunnel in unmarked graves.
Whether one believes fact over legend, John Henry was but one of the thousands of men whose strength and determination to build a new life for themselves and their families were the true foundation for the coming of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, the growth of Appalachia, and the expansion of the nation westward.