THE HAWK’S NEST TUNNEL TRAGEDY
The small community of Gauley Bridge, West Virginia looks like a picture postcard of small-town America. An old rusty railroad bridge stretches out over the water where the New River merges with the Gauley. Houses dot the steep hills and line the banks of the river. A few stores can be found along the town’s main street. A renovated old train station serves as the town hall. The speed limit is just 25 miles an hour through town. Children ride bicycles and play in the yards. People smile and say hello to one another as they pass on the sidewalks. A farmer’s market in the middle of town sells fresh vegetables in the summer and pumpkins and bales of straw in the fall.
But on May 20, 1931, a local newspaper attempted to tell the secret that lies under the sunny surface of this little town – but publication of the story was stopped by a local judge. It’s a dark secret that has become a terrible memory of death, an almost forgotten horror of one of the worst industrial disasters in American history: the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy. The disaster occurred during the years of the Great Depression, when times were hard and a man would do just about anything to feed his family. Taking advantage of this fact, powerful and wealthy men started a dangerous project that would claim the lives of an unknown number of men and cause the community of Gauley Bridge to become known as the “Town of the Living Dead.”
A haunting image of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel as a worker emerges from the mist caused by the drilling of the stone – the same fine mist of silica that was destroying the lungs of the men breathing it.
The Hawk’s Nest Disaster resulted from the construction of a tunnel through the mountain near Gauley Bridge. The three-mile-long passage was designed to divert water to an electrical power station by Union Carbide, the sponsor of the plan. However, the subcontractors on the job failed to follow standard safety precautions during the drilling operations, which ended with at least 764 dead workers. None of the companies involved were charged with criminal negligence.
Union Carbide (the company that would later be involved in the chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, in 1984) was formed in West Virginia by the merger of several companies in 1917. By the late 1920s, the company created the New Kanawha Power Co. in order to produce power that would be used in the production of ferro-metals, like aluminum, at a site below Gauley Bridge. The proposal required the damming of the New River just below Hawk’s Nest, a spectacular overlook on the river, and the construction of a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain. This tunnel would carry the rushing water to electric generators downstream.
New Kanawha Power contracted with Rinehart & Dennis Co. of Charlottesville, Virginia, to build the tunnel and the dam. Tunneling began on March 31, 1930 and progressed at breakneck speed until it was completed in December 1931. No one knows for sure why the tunnel had to be completed at such a fast pace, but it was believed that uncertainly about the Federal Power Commission’s control over the New River was one of the reasons. If the project could be hurried through, the government would have little say over what could, or couldn’t, be done during the project. Management drove the workers hard to make sure that the tunnel was completed on time.
Finding workers in Depression-era Appalachia, where numerous coal mines had closed, was an easy task. Word spread through the region, and through the rural south, that jobs were available at Gauley Bridge. Men walked, drove and hopped freight trains to be first in line for the promised work. Rinehart & Dennis hired mostly black workers from outside West Virginia for the project. Reportedly, 75 percent of the 1,494 men who worked inside the tunnel as drillers and mockers – who removed rock debris – and their assistants were African-American. There were another 1,488 workers, also mostly black, who held jobs that involved tasks inside and outside the tunnel. The reasoning behind this is grim in hindsight – in the early 1930s, black workers were seen as expendable.
A group of workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. Like the man in the front of the photo, the majority were African-American, laboring under unsafe conditions because they were considered largely “expendable.”
Workers labored on the tunnel project for ten hours a day, always under the watchful eyes of bosses who used guns and clubs to force ill or unwilling men to start each day’s work. Black workers were paid in company scrip instead of cash, always at lower rates than white workers. When they were dropped from the payroll, they were evicted from company housing, which consisted of overcrowded, segregated boxcars, and run out of town by the Fayette County Sheriff.
Neither Rinehart & Dennis, nor the Union Carbide engineers overseeing the projects, followed even minimal safety precautions during the drilling operations. Workers tunneled from 250 to 300 feet per week through 99 percent silica. Experts knew that miners who inhaled silica dust stood a good chance of contracting silicosis, a deadly lung ailment. But the company ordered that the workers use a dry drilling technique that would create more dust because this method was faster and cheaper. The high-velocity drills that bored cavities in the rock for the insertion of dynamite charges did not spray water on the stone, which was a standard technique to reduce dust. Air ventilation was inadequate. No measurement was taken of dust levels in the tunnel. Ventilators and masks were not issued to tunnel workers, but they were supplied to company executives during inspection tours of the project.
Not surprisingly, few workers stayed on the job for long. Sixty percent of the African-American migrant workers worked less than two months on the project. However, this was long enough to pay a deadly price for signing on at Hawk’s Nest.
The men emerged from the hole in the mountain each day with their dark skin covered by clouds of white dust. They looked like phantoms as they came out of the cloud-filled tunnel, blinking and coughing from the dust that filled their eyes and lungs. They began dying two months after they first entered the tunnel. Their deaths were painful. As the silica they inhaled created fibrous nodules in their lungs, their lungs grew stiff and the men found it harder and harder to breath. Eventually, they strangled to death, writhing and choking until they drew their last punishing gasp. It was reported that a man named Cecil Jones struggled so hard for breath that he kicked the wooden slats out of the baseboard of his bed before he died. Silicosis could not be cured, but doctors knew what it was. Rather than diagnose it, a company physician told tunnel workers that they had a new disease called “tunnelitis” and gave them worthless pills.
On May 20, 1931, the local newspaper, the Fayette Tribune, tried to break the story of the sick and dying tunnel workers and their unsafe working conditions, but a gag order issued by a local judge stopped publication. But even without the story, local residents knew something was wrong. Gauley Bridge was being dubbed with a nickname – “town of the living dead.” A Congressional report from February 4, 1936, described the scene: "The men got down so they had no flesh left on them at all. As they express it down there, the men got so they were all hide, bone and leaders, which means he is just skin and tendons and looks like a living skeleton."
A problem arose as the black workers died. There was no “colored” burial ground in the area. Handley White, local funeral parlor owner in Summersville, located a field on his mother's farm and was given a contract to open a burial ground on the Martha White farm in Summersville. Handley was paid $50 per body with the promise of "plenty of business." Lieber Cutlp, a local resident and friend of White’s son, later recalled the days of the burials. White contacted him and asked if he wanted to make some extra money with his flatbed truck. Cutlp, anxious to make any extra money he could, quickly agreed. The dead workers were stacked in rows and strapped on the back of the flatbed truck, he remembered. More of the dead workers were arranged in an upright sitting position as if they were alive for their ride to their final resting place. For years rumors spread about workers buried in mass graves on the Martha White farm, but White family members deny this accusation.
Between July and December 1932, local attorneys filed dozens of lawsuits on behalf of workers who had suffered acute silicosis. The disease had wreaked havoc on the workers, ravaging their lungs and making them susceptible to secondary infections, such as tuberculosis. Silicosis had been recognized as an industrial disease in America since the early 1900s. The United States Bureau of Mines had published warnings in the 1920s about the dangers from it while using high-speed drills. Acute silicosis, from which death could occur within months of exposure, however, was not a recognized disease in 1930. West Virginia did not classify silicosis as an industrial disease at all and the state rejected worker’s compensation claims from men who claimed that they had contracted it at Hawk’s Nest.
When faced with more than 250 suits that sought more than $4 million in damages by the middle of 1933, Rinehart & Dennis settled out of court, agreeing to pay $130,000, half of which went to attorneys’ fees. In accepting these settlements, the plaintiff’s attorneys agreed not to file any further suits and to surrender all case records to the defendants. The contractor brokered two additional settlements based on subsequent suits and paid out $200,000 in awards and attorney fees. The average plaintiff received $400, while the defendant took possession of the damning evidence, including x-rays and medical records. Reports circulated that Rinehart & Dennis and Union Carbide bribed witnesses and tampered with juries during the trials prior to the settlements. Few records of the sick workers remains today, most were apparently purposely destroyed.
How many workers actually died in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel? The real number will never be known. This is partly because Union Carbide wiped out the historical record and partly because most of the tunnel workers were dismissed at the end of 1931 and scattered throughout the South. Many of the men did not become sick until later, so their deaths never became a part of the official numbers.
It was also discovered at trial that the field at the Martha White farm was not the only burial ground for black workers. Apparently, Rinehart & Dennis had hired another local undertaker to dispose of the bodies of unclaimed workers and he had buried them in a field near Gauley Bridge. The location of this burial ground remained a mystery until 1972, when the West Virginia highway department stumbled onto 45 of these graves. Martin Cherniack, a medical doctor with a master’s degree in public health, attempted to reconstruct the epidemiology of the Hawk’s Nest tragedy. After painstaking historical research, his “conservative estimate” was that 746 men who worked in the tunnel had died from acute silicosis, which translated into a mortality rate of 63 percent. African-American workers made up 76 percent of the deaths.
The tragedy forced recognition of acute silicosis as an industrial hazard and a brief and ineffective congressional hearing in 1936, helped focus national attention on the condition. By 1937, all states had adopted laws recognizing the disease in some form – although West Virginia’s statute was worthless since it was written solely in the interest of corporations.
The Hawk’s Nest tragedy remains a haunting incident in American history today. Dismissed as a product of “mountain gossip” in the 1930s, it has come to be recognized as one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters and a chilling reminder of the fact that no man is ever expendable.