The historicity of many aspects of the John Henry legend is subject to wide debate. It is commonly stated that Henry's rail work, including his race against the steam hammer, occurred while working along the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. In particular, Henry is claimed to have raced the steam hammer during the construction of Big Bend tunnel near Talcott, West Virginia between 1869 and 1871. Talcott holds a yearly festival named for Henry and a statue and memorial plaque have been placed along a highway south of Talcott as it crosses over the Big Bend tunnel.
The legend of John Henry has been compared to that of other American "Big Men", such as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. John Henry's heroism is associated with several elements: his strength and grit as a working-class common man, his status as a hero to African American laborers, and his allegorical depiction of "the tragedy of man versus machine" and other aspects of modernization.
There are many versions of John Henry's story. In almost all versions of the story, John Henry is a black man of exceptional physical gifts, a former slave, possibly born in Tennessee. Henry becomes the greatest "steel-driver" in the mid-nineteenth-century push to expand railroads from the East Coast of the United States, across and through the mountains, to the frontier West. However, the owner of the railroad buys a steam-powered hammer to do the work of his mostly black steel-driving crew. To save his job and the jobs of his men, John Henry challenges the owner to a contest: Henry will race the steam-powered hammer.