Last weekend I was given a copy of part of an article, "Mountains of Dunnavant isolate,...," from the Shelby County Reporter, Thursday, October 21, 1982. The first sentence is, "Dunnavant is defined by the mountains." Two of the mountains in question are the parallel, southwest-to-northeast running ridges, Oak and Coosa Mountains, through which the Columbus & Western RR put tunnels in 1887-88.
These are the mountains that may be referred to in versions of "John Henry" that place him "'tween them mountains" or say "Let two mountains be his grave stones."
"The 800-foot ridges of Sand Mountain partially cork the valley some five miles northeast of the hub near the St. Clair line...Mountains here, mountains there. In Dunnavant, mountains are nearly everywhere." Actually, they are not *in* Dunnavant, they define it by marking the boundaries of Dunnavant Valley.
"A large drill bit, embedded for years in the rock floor of Oak Tunnel, breeds the local legend that this is where the famous John Henry met his death while racing a spiking machine. True or not, [82-year old Earl] Bowdoin swears that as a kid he saw the jutting end of the bit before it finally disappeared." A photograph of this drill, sticking up in the rock outside the east portal of Oak Tunnel, appeared in the Central of Georgia Magazine in 1930.
According to L. W. "Lonnie" Adams, at 96 believed to be the oldest man in Dunnavant in 1982, "My father used to cut timber for the steam drills they used on those tunnels."
This is the first indication I've found that steam drills were used in the construction of Oak or Coosa Tunnel.
News accounts from July, 1887, speak of a layer of very hard rock being struck when the crew was about halfway through Coosa Tunnel, slowing the work. John Henry's race with a steam drill is supposed to have been on Tuesday, September 20, 1887. It is supposed to have been arranged as a bet between a representative of a company selling steam drills and Captain Frederick Yeamans Dabney, Chief Engineer and detailed construction supervisor for the C & W. When the "contractor" (presumably Captain Dabney) told the steam drill salesman "that he had a Negro who could be his damned old drill any day" (quote from C. C. Spencer), "the company owning the drill offered to put it in for nothing if this man could drill more rock with the hammer than he could with his drill. And, so the contractor (Shea & Dabney) accepted the proposition."
The timing certainly fits - hard rock struck in June or July, steam drill being demonstrated in September - perhaps Captain Dabney was exploring the use of steam drills to try to keep the project from falling too far behind. Steam drills or not, Coosa Tunnel was scheduled to have been completed by about the end of 1887 but in fact it was not completed until June, 1888. Oak Tunnel had been completed earlier, but I don't know just when.
Anyhow, it is plausible that steam drills were introduced, or more added, to the project after the hard rock was struck in the middle of Coosa Tunnel.