The Great Bend Tunnel, also known as the Big Bend, was completed in present-day Summers County on September 12, 1872.
At more than a mile long, it cut off a seven-mile meander of the Greenbrier River and was the longest tunnel on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.
About 800 men—many of them African-Americans—worked on the tunnel’s construction. The crew drilled through hard red shale that disintegrated when exposed to air, causing many rockfalls and landslides. Although the exact number of deaths will never be known, many construction workers lost their lives on the project.
Great Bend’s importance to railroad construction is undeniable, but the primary reason we remember the tunnel is a bit more debatable. According to tradition, the tunnel is where John Henry defeated a steam drill, becoming one of the world’s best-known folk heroes. While it’s not known for certain whether John Henry was a real person or whether he achieved his immortality at Great Bend, it’s clear that this heroic story of man over machine resonated with a 19th-century America that was rapidly being transformed by modern technology.