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I Forge Iron

John Henry, a steel driving man


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Surfing the internet can be a dangerous thing, and sure enough I got caught in the rip tide and ended up on a site about John Henry.

Now John Henry was a mighty man. He went to work as a steel-driver for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and John Henry was the strongest, the most powerful man working the rails.

He worked tirelessly, drilling with a 14-pound hammer, and going 10 to 12 feet in one workday.

Then one day a salesman came along to the camp. He had a steam-powered drill and claimed it could out-drill any man. Well, they set up a contest then and there between John Henry and that there drill. The foreman ran that newfangled steam-drill. John Henry, he just pulled out two 20-pound hammers, one in each hand. They drilled and drilled, dust rising everywhere. The men were howling and cheering. At the end of 35 minutes, John Henry had drilled two seven foot holes - a total of fourteen feet, while the steam drill had only drilled one nine-foot hole.
This was done while building a tunnel in Big Bend Mountain, near Talcott WV.

I think I will stick with my little 2 pound hammer for a while longer and enjoy blacksmithing.
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I don't know whether J Henry is a myth but there was a local smith hereabouts (he's dead now and I can't recall his name off the top of my head) who had a shop on the East side of San Antonio for many years. He sharpened those big 1-1/4 jackhammer bits that the city utility companies uses as paving breakers in air hammers. He did not have a power hammer but used only a 4 lb hand hammer, a coal forge with a 400 Champion blower and a 200 lb Haybudden.

The city brought the bits in a dump truck so all he did from morning to night was repoint chisels - I'm sure he forged thousands upon thousands during his career. He got started doing them in the 50's when his regular blacksmithing work ran out and the City just kept using him until he retired. I seem to recall that he was up to charging $1 each and thought that was good money. Since most of them had a partial point, he could complete one in a single heat and would get the tip almost white in the forge (which was probably too hot for the steel but oh well). He let them all air cool in a pile on the floor then reheated just the tip of each one with a torch and quenched in old motor oil. The tips would hold up pretty well and come back mushroomed - very few broke.

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Twenty pounds of hammer in each hand is a killer for sure. I worked up to a six in my youth and after not using a hammer much for several years I ended up with a nice 2.5 pound cross peen for most work and if I needed something heavier I use a #25 LG. I re-pointed a few picks for Mexican landscapers. The ground around here wears them down quick. I charged $5 on the LG

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Not something I do regularly but I have pointed 3 tripods ( 9 legs ) in one setting with the 3 # Strasil straight pien ( coal forge at a rondy ) Does wear you out, yes. I recall Mom singing a song about John Henry but that was a long time ago. I use the Kerrihard here at home for most everything I can.

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Quite coincidentally, I too came upon a version of yhe John Henry story/myth/legend. In this one, an historian claims there really was a John Henry, a black man who happened to be a prisoner. It seems the railroad in those parts had a steam hammer and could not hire men to work near it because of the hazardous conditions. Enter the prison labor, a pool of men who had no choice. Many a version of the legend has John Henry being a strapping huge man, this version according to the researcher who claims to have gotten to the root of the real John Henry sais he was stout and strong to be sure, but stood 5' 2" tall. And yes, he did in fact outperform the steamhammer. Dan:o

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