In 1925 Louis Chappell interviewed C. S. "Neal" Miller, of Talcott, WV. In 1927 Guy Johnson also interviewed Miller. In the same year, Johnson corresponded with C. C. Spencer (Salt Lake City).
These two men, Miller and Spencer, are the only self-proclaimed eyewitnesses to John Henry's contest with the steam drill that Chappell and Johnson turned up. For Chappell, Miller did not make this claim, only for Johnson.
Miller placed John Henry's contest at Big Bend Tunnel, West Virginia, in about 1870. The tunnel was bored 1869-72.
Spencer placed John Henry at Cruzee Mountain, Alabama, in 1882. (It had to have been 1886-88, when the C & W RR was under construction.)
Johnson spurned Spencer's testimony and placed great faith in Miller's:
"At last I had found a man who not only saw John Henry but also saw the contest. Mr. Miller told me all this in a quiet and casual way as we sat on his porch at dusk. He seemed to see John Henry and the steam drill as clearly as if it were only a few years since he had seen them."
"One man against the mountain of negative evidence! Were it not for that one man the question might not be so teasing ... He had apparently had first-hand knowledge of a steam drill; yet I could not bring out by questions any evidence that he had ever had an opportunity to observe one unless it were at Big Bend Tunnel." (I note that Miller was educated, that popular periodicals of his day carried illustrations of steam drills, and that he might have seen a steam drill at Big Bend Tunnel at some time after it was bored, since work of various sorts continued for years.)
Chappell grouped Miller with the Hedrick brothers, neither of whom had seen the contest. Their rather disparate testimonies were congruent enough for Chappell, who came down solidly for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.
Miller is a poor witness. He gives few details and changes elements of his story (e.g., for Chappell, Phil Henderson was the shaker; for Johnson, Jeff Davis;; for Chappell, John Henry "was later killed in the tunnel"; for Johnson, "he took sick and died from fever soon after that"). Further, he says that he didn't see much of the contest - "It was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill. There wasn't any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting on from time to time, but I didn't get excited over it especially." This is an unlikely inspiration for a legend.
Spencer is an excellent witness, giving myriads of details. Preparations for the contest lasted about three weeks - "there were about three or four hundred people present." On beating the steam drill, John Henry collapsed, was revived, and died with his head cradled in his wife's lap. This is just the kind of event that could inspired a legend.
Many of Spencer's details are confirmed in documentation (none, however, that point specifically to John Henry).
Because Miller seemed to be such a poor witness, and Spencer such as good one, I have not been especially perturbed by their conflicting testimonies. I trust Spencer a lot more than Miller.
Not so Chappell and Johnson, who made Miller's testimony a lynchpin of the case for Big Bend Tunnel as the John Henry site.
Here, now, is something that astonishes me:
Looking on the WWW into genealogy, I find that Cornelius S. Miller was born on June 25, 1861. His age in the 1880 census is 18 (really 19 - he had had a birthday three days before the enumeration). His age in the 1910 census is 56 (really 48), and in 1920 he is 66 (really 58). He told Johnson in 1927 that he was 74 - he was really 66!
Miller turned 8 in 1869, the year he told Johnson he was 17 and started working at Big Bend Tunnel. If he *did* start working there at age 17, then the year was 1878-79!
Miller was too young to have worked at Big Bend Tunnel while it was bored.
His testimony is fantasy.