WV: Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was a tragedy beyond comparison.

In this blog, I put together information, photos and forty different newspaper clippings from the archives. There are also a couple of docu videos.

Names of the dead: https://hawksnestnames.org/#intro

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Ownership: WV State Archives (WVSA)
Union Carbide Collection.
Origination Date: June 05, 2009

According to e-WV:


Drilled through three miles of solid rock, the Hawks Nest Tunnel is a major hydroelectric water diversion tunnel and an engineering marvel. Largely constructed between 1930 and 1932, the project engaged almost 5,000 workers, consisting of local men and a majority of migrant workers, most of them southern blacks. The tunnel was part of a complex to generate power for Union Carbide’s electro-metallurgical plant in nearby Alloy. It was the largest construction project that had been licensed to that time in West Virginia, and it became the site of one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of the United States.

In all, 2,982 men worked underground drilling and blasting. Only 40 percent of the underground work force worked more than two months and only 20 percent more than six months. Silicosis afflicted an astonishingly high proportion of this short-tenured work force. Silicosis, a progressive fibrosis of the lungs caused by inhaling pulverized silica dioxide, was a recognized hazard in hard rock mining and in granite sheds. Because the Hawks Nest Tunnel was licensed as a civil engineering project, even the modest forms of safety enforcement then available to miners did not apply. The combination of large work crews drilling and blasting in underground confined spaces, poor ventilation, lack of dust control and of personal breathing protection, and seams of exceptionally pure silica combined to create a man-made disaster. In less than two years after groundbreaking in April 1930, young men succumbed to acute silicosis. Hundreds would eventually die.

The circumstances cannot be considered accidental. Prior to groundbreaking, core samples made it clear that most of the tunnel would be drilled through high grade silica-bearing sandstone. Ultimately, a third of the tunnel was enlarged for the purpose of silica extraction.

Two great trials were held in 1933 and 1934 in Fayetteville and in Charleston to litigate claims against the contractor, Rinehart and Dennis of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the New Kanawha Power Company, a corporate entity created by Union Carbide. There would be 538 lawsuits filed against the two companies. In the end, the out-of-court settlement was modest—$200,000—with individual awards ranging from $30 to $1,600. The largest trial ended with a hung jury, evidence of jury tampering, and generous compensation to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The death toll cannot be stated with certainty. Hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936 attributed 476 deaths to work on the tunnel. A study published in 1986 by the epidemiologist Martin Cherniack estimates that as many as 764 men may have died from acute silicosis and related conditions. The Hawks Nest Tunnel became an important part of the labor culture of the 1930s, generating a novel and several short stories, as well as songs and an important cycle of poems by the activist poet Muriel Rukeyser. National news stories were published for several weeks when the extent of the tragedy came to public light. For many Americans outside the state, a January 25, 1936, Newsweek article was the first time they heard of the tunnel deaths taking place years before.

While an industrial disaster and human tragedy, the Hawks Nest project was an engineering success. The tunnel continues to operate and provide power to the current owner of the Alloy plant.

Per the National Parks Page: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: Summersville, WV

Throughout the years, West Virginia has suffered many tragedies that left hundreds of workers injured or dead. These tragedies are the result of disasters occurring in our coal mines, on our railroads and at industrial facilities like the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel incident. This disaster became one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of the United States.1

inside a tunnel under construction
Interior of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel dring construction, c 1930

In 1930, construction began on a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain located between Ansted and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. When finished, the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel would divert water from the New River to a hydroelectric plant downstream. The water would be used to produce electricity for Union Carbide’s metals plant at Alloy, West Virginia. In order to build the tunnel through solid rock, hundreds of unemployed men were recruited for construction jobs on the project. At least two-thirds of these workers were African Americans.

As the men drilled and blasted a 32-36 foot tunnel through the mountain, they drilled through rock that contained high levels of silica. The dry drilling technique that was used released large amounts of silica dust into the air. This made working in the tunnel very dangerous. Black diggers emerged from the hole in the mountain covered with layers of white dust. The interior of the tunnel was a white cloud of silica, impairing vision and clogging the lungs of workers.2

Because the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was licensed as a civil engineering project, even the most modest forms of safety were not applied.3 Workers labored in confined spaces with poor ventilation, a lack of dust control, and limited use of personal breathing protection. Within months, workers became sick from breathing silica dust. They showed signs of a lung disease called silicosis but were treated for a new disease called “tunnelitis”. Silicosis is a disease that infects the lungs leading to a shortness of breath and eventually death. Silicosis cannot be cured.

Hawk's Nest Tunnel Memorial sign
Monument at the Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial Cemetery

The length of employment in the tunnel rarely lasted more than a year. The dangerous working conditions and silica dust rendered many of the men unable to work. Excavation of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel lead to the greatest death toll ever from silicosis in the United States. Of the approximately 5,000 men that worked on the project, an estimated 2,900 worked inside the tunnel. Of these men, silicosis claimed the lives of at least 764 workers. A majority of the dead were African Americans. In the years after the project was completed, many more would die due to their exposure to silica dust while working in the tunnel.

With the death of so many black workers, the problem of where to bury them became an issue. There was no burial sites nearby for black workers.4 To solve the issue, a funeral parlor in Summersville, West Virginia located an open field on Martha White’s farm. This field became the burial grounds for many of the African Americans who died working on the tunnel project. Owen Symes remembers the cemetery like this:

“I used to rabbit hunt over there on the Martha White farm out in the fields before Rt. 19 came through here. I could see the graves. They were little soft mounds of dirt with grass over them. If you were not careful, you could step on one and it would cave in. They were in rows right up and down the fence line. They moved a lot of them when the highway came through. Dug up the graves and took what was left down by Hughes Bridge on the Gauley River to bury them again.”

Today, the tunnel continues diverting water from the New River to produce hydro-electricity for the Alloy plant. Silicosis has been designated as an occupational disease with compensation for workers. However, tunnel workers at Hawk’s Nest were not protected by these laws.5 This memorial on Highway 19 was established to remember and honor the many victims of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy.

Newspaper Archives:

Hawks Nest -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
25 Sep 1930, Thu  •  Page 7
 -
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Bluefield, West Virginia
01 Nov 1931, Sun  •  Page 4
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
19 Nov 1931, Thu  •  Page 6
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
04 Sep 1932, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
04 Sep 1932, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
02 Oct 1932, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
31 Oct 1932, Mon  •  Page 9
 -
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Bluefield, West Virginia
17 Dec 1932, Sat  •  Page 3
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
01 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 4
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
08 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
08 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
08 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
08 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
22 Jan 1933, Sun  •  Page 12
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
12 Mar 1933, Sun  •  Page 8
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
04 Apr 1933, Tue  •  Page 2
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
04 Jan 1934, Thu  •  Page 7
 -
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Bluefield, West Virginia
14 Feb 1934, Wed  •  Page 10
 -
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Bluefield, West Virginia
15 Feb 1934, Thu  •  Page 7
 -
Beckley Post-Herald
Beckley, West Virginia
29 Jun 1934, Fri  •  Page 2
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
13 Jul 1934, Fri  •  Page 3
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
08 Dec 1934, Sat  •  Page 32
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
28 Dec 1934, Fri  •  Page 1
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
28 Dec 1934, Fri  •  Page 16
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
08 Apr 1935, Mon  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
19 Apr 1935, Fri  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
19 Jan 1936, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
19 Jan 1936, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
19 Jan 1936, Sun  •  Page 2
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
20 Jan 1936, Mon  •  Page 1
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
02 Feb 1936, Sun  •  Page 11
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
02 Feb 1936, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
07 Feb 1936, Fri  •  Page 2
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
08 Feb 1936, Sat  •  Page 7
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
20 Feb 1936, Thu  •  Page 17
 -
The Charleston Daily Mail
Charleston, West Virginia
27 May 1936, Wed  •  Page 7
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
21 Jun 1936, Sun  •  Page 1
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
21 Jun 1936, Sun  •  Page 6
 -
The Raleigh Register
Beckley, West Virginia
15 Nov 1936, Sun  •  Page 6
 -
#14
Beckley Post-Herald
Beckley, West Virginia
29 Dec 1936, Tue  •  Page 29

Additional Reading:

Medium: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: An American Tragedy

WV Gazette: Cemetery repairs let Hawks Nest Tunnel workers rest in peace and public learn their story

EHS Today: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy: The Forgotten Victims of America’s Worst Industrial Disaster

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