Almost Heaven: A Visit to West Virginia

When the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was being built in the mountains just after the Civil War (last week I walked on its old tracks), the work crews were worked hard. The most famous worker was John Henry, a steel driver who hammered spikes into the mountainside to make space for sticks of dynamite that would blow away mountain to make room for the tracks. The steel driver and the man who placed and turned the spikes had to work with speed and split-second precision. The men laying down the tracks worked to their rhythm. Words came out of this, out of the rhythm of the hit and the hammer and haul, and the words became chants and poems and folk songs, and they spread from the tracks to the town and then out to the country. —Peggy NoonanAlmost Heaven: A Visit to West Virginia (Opinion Journal)

Recent scholarship challenges the claim that Talcott, WV is the best claim to the origin of the John Henry legend, but Noonan has pretty much written the article I wanted to write when I requested some funds to take a drive through Kentucky and West Virginia this summer. (I ended up not going to West Virginia, but I did crawl around in a cave in Kentucky.)