Close-up: John Henry Dying
This is the center scene in the painting. John Henry's wife Polly Ann cradles his head under one hand as he dies. Three workers watch in the distance standing before the opening of the Oak Mountain Tunnel in Alabama. According to eyewitness CC Spenser, John's wife Polly Ann was called to the site after John collapsed. The third figure looks alomost like an angel kneeling to take John on the railway to Heaven.
Close-Up Steam Drill
I learned many things when doing this painting. Most of the info was given to me by John Garst, John Henry researcher. In this close-up a mechanic with a wrench stands behind the drill while the organizer of the event Captain Dabney stands to the right of the operator. A hose from a generator pumps steam to the drill.
In 1888 when the contest was held, the steam drill was just being introduced as a way to save money and get more work done. The steam drill could do the work of many, many steel drivers. The legs were weighted to keep from bouncing and sometimes the operator stood on the leg weights.
How did John Henry win? The steam drill broke down several times.
Close-Up: Steel Driving
Families would sometimes come to watch these types of contests. I do have one photo of a contest with several familes in attendance.
The shaker holds the steel, not a job I'd like. After John pounds the steel, the shaker turns the steel slightly so the drill tip can penetrate the rock better on the next strike. After the hole is deep enough, dynamite is placed in the hole and set off. That's how they cut through mountains of rock.