Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster

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Historical marker for the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.

The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster was an large-scale incident of occupational silicosis as the result of the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, as part of a hydroelectric project. This project is considered to be one of the worst industrial disasters in American history.[1]

Tunnel[edit]

To generate electricity for a plant downstream at Alloy, Union Carbide's Kanawha and New River Power Company subsidiary decided to divert the New River to improve its power generation ability. Beginning in 1927, its contractor Rinehart & Dennis began construction of the 3-mile (4.8 km) tunnel carrying the river under Gauley Mountain. A dam was constructed immediately below Hawks Nest to divert most of the New River flow into the tunnel. It then re-enters the river near Gauley Bridge leaving a section known as "the Dries" in between.

Silica[edit]

During the construction of the tunnel, workers found the mineral silica and were asked to mine it for use in electroprocessing steel. The workers were not given any masks or breathing equipment to use while mining, despite the fact that management wore such equipment during inspection visits. As a result of the exposure to silica dust, many workers developed silicosis, a debilitating lung disease. A large number of the workers eventually died from silicosis, in some cases as quickly as within a year.

There are no definitive statistics as to the death toll from the Hawks Nest disaster. According to a historical marker on site, there were 109 admitted deaths. A Congressional hearing placed the death toll at 476.[2] Other sources range from 700 to over 1,000 deaths amongst the 3,000 workers.[3] Many of the workers at the site were African-Americans from the southern United States who returned home or left the region after becoming sick, making it difficult to calculate an accurate total.[4]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Muriel Rukeyser wrote a poetry sequence, "The Book of the Dead", about this disaster, which can be found in her book, U.S. 1 (published in 1938).
  • Hubert Skidmore, a West Virginian, immortalized the tragic events from the common man's perspective in his book Hawk's Nest which followed the fictional accounts of several tunnel workers and their families. Skidmore wrote the book only a few years after the incident (originally published in 1941) and likely used direct sources for his story development.
  • In the young adult fiction novel The Miner's Daughter by Gretchen Moran Laskas, the main character's father and older brother go to work on the Hawks Nest Tunnel after their coal mine is shut down. The two men return less than a year later because the father is gravely ill with a cough.[5]
  • Dwight Harshbarger, a native West Virginian, wrote the novel Witness at Hawks Nest. This historical fiction novel tells the tragic story of America's worst, yet least known, industrial disaster.[6]
  • David Pushkin, a native West Virginian, is developing a documentary with the working title: Hawks Nest Tunnel: A Documentary. It's an investigative documentary that digs deeply into the largely untold story of government and big business. It uncovers the voices and faces of West Virginians who were impacted by our nation’s largest industrial tragedy. www.hawksnestmovie.org

Historical marker[edit]

A nearby West Virginia Historical Marker at Hawks Nest State Park reads:[2]

"Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35. Tragedy brought recognition of acute silicosis as occupational lung disease and compensation legislation to protect workers."

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Cherniack, Martin (1986). The Hawk's Nest Incident. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04485-0. 
  2. ^ a b "Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster". West Virginia Department of Culture and History. Retrieved 2008-11-25. 
  3. ^ Spangler, Patricia (February 19, 2008). The Hawks Nest Tunnel. Wythe-North Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9801862-0-8. 
  4. ^ Keenan, Steve (April 2, 2008). "Book explores Hawks Nest tunnel history". The Fayette Tribune. Archived from the original on November 25, 2008. Retrieved November 25, 2008. 
  5. ^ Laskas, Gretchen Moran (2007-02-06). The Miner's Daughter. Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4169-1262-0. 
  6. ^ Harshbarger, Dwight (2009). Witness at Hawks Nest. Publishers Place. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°07′20″N 81°07′42″W / 38.12222°N 81.12833°W / 38.12222; -81.12833