Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary source: Folklore

Larger than Life, Part 1

Workers' Folk Heroes

Painting of Joe Magarac bending a red-hot steel rail above his head

Joe Magarac bends a red-hot rail with is bare hands in this painting by Walter Gropper. University Art Gallery, University of Pittsburgh

Folk heroes help us understand what workers want to be like: what they thought made a good worker, what they admired about others, tried to be like themselves. Looking closely at work folk heroes tells a lot about what the real workers were proud of about themselves.

Most folk heroes -- both real and make-believe -- have grown exaggerated physical and character traits needed for the real job. Tall tale hero Paul Bunyan and his ox were larger than life, exaggerated versions of real lumber jacks.

To be a folk hero that lasts usually requires more than physical strength, however. They also have heroic character: They are all hard-working, brave, and self-sacrificing. Real-life engineer Casey Jones became a folk hero not only by driving his locomotive faster to make up lost time (being "on time" was more important than anything for railroads). During a crash, he stayed with his train so he could apply the brakes until the very end. Casey died in the crash, but by staying with the the train as long as he could, he saved many other lives. Bravery and self-sacrifice made him a hero. (Johnstown has its own "Casey Jones"! Read the story of PRR engineer John Hess's ride down the valley warning that the Flood was coming.)

Here are the stories of two folk heroes from near Johnstown, whose jobs many Johnstowners know well. Our railroad building hero from West Virginia was based on a real man, John Henry. The steelworker hero, Joe Magarac, was a make-believe hero who was huge, humorous, and big-hearted. Coal miners, it seems, don't have their hero yet. You will fix that soon!

John Henry: A Match-up of Man vs. Machine

Triumph or Tragedy?

USPS stamp picturing John Henry and his hammer

John Henry ©1996, United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved.  Used with Permission.

John Henry was a real African American worker who helped to build railroads through the mountains of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Before the days of heavy earth-moving construction machinery, railroads used men armed with picks, hammers, and dynamite to cut away mountainsides to level the earth for train tracks. If the mountains were too big to cut away, work crews tunneled through them.

John Henry was a "steel driver" on one of these railroad construction crews. His job was to hammer a steel drill bit into the rock while another man turned the drill to make a deep narrow hole. Later another crew member would put dynamite in the hole. When the dynamite went off, the rock cracked and men would come in to a haul away the pieces.

John Henry was famous for his huge size and great strength. It seemed like he could hammer all day without getting tired! One day while working on the Great Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, his captain (boss) was excited about a new steam-powered drill that had just arrived. Could it speed up their work by drilling faster than the teams of men? They would put it to the test. John Henry was the strongest steel driver, so he took on the machine.

The pressure was tremendous. His pride was at stake. Worse, all the steel drivers would lose their jobs if the machine won! John Henry worked harder than he ever did before. And, he beat the machine! But he worked so hard that his heart gave out. Even though the machine lost the race that day, it beat John Henry in another way: It was no more tired after the race than before. The next day, it would work just as hard while John Henry's family and friends prepared for his funeral. The steel drivers knew they wouldn't be driving steel for a living much longer.

His story became one of the most famous folk songs in America. Both black and white workers understood the pride John Henry felt in his work and his fear that machines would make his skills unneeded.

Listen to the "Ballad of John Henry" and read the song lyrics. Section divider

Joe Magarac

Joe Magarac was an imaginary folk hero, like Paul Bunyan, whose story came from eastern European immigrants working in Pittsburgh area steel mills. His physical power and his brave, generous, and hard-working character made Joe Magarac (whose name "Magarac" means "donkey" in Croatian) the greatest steelworker who ever lived.

Mural of Joe Magarac from the Carnegie LIbrary of Pittsburgh

A gigantic Joe Magarac squeezes steel rails between his fingers in this mural from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Courtesy of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Physical traits

Joe Magarac, the story goes, was a man made of steel. He was born in an iron ore mine and raised in a furnace.

Some versions of the story said Magarac was seven feet tall. Others claimed he was as tall as a smokestack! His shoulders were as big as the steel-mill door and his hands like the huge buckets (ladles) used to pour molten steel. He ate that hot steel like soup and cold steel ingots like meat. He could drink a gallon of liquid in one swallow.


The mighty Magarac could do the work of 29 men, because he never slept, working 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. He stirred vats of hot steel with his bare hands and twisted horseshoes and pretzels out of iron ingots. He made railroad rails by squeezing molten steel between his fingers. As the steel cooled, he made it into cannon balls as easily as kids make snowballs.


Besides being physically strong, Joe Magarac was generous, self-sacrificing, and brave.

Once, for example, he won a weight-lifting contest and the prize was marrying the mill boss' daughter Mary. But Mary was in love with Pete Pussick. Instead of claiming his prize, Joe stepped aside so she could marry her true love (after all, if Joe had a wife, she would be very lonely while he worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week!).

Joe could appear just about anywhere in the mill in seconds by walking from one hot furnace rim to another. He used this ability to appear out of nowhere to save steelworkers from danger. When a crane holding a ladle with 50 tons of molten steel broke right above his crew, he caught it with his bare hands. Not a drop of hot "soup" splashed on anybody.

A whole train of loaded ingot-buggies broke loose and headed full steam downhill toward a group of employees. Just in the nick of time, Joe caught the last buggy and pulled the train back up hill, saving everyone!

No one is sure what happened to Joe. In one version of his story, he jumped into a Bessemer converter to save a load of steel and lives on in the girders of a new building or bridge. Another version claims that he is still alive, waiting in a abandoned mill for the day that the furnace burns again.

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Create a Coal Mining Hero in Larger than Life, Part 2

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