Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster

Coordinates: 38°07′20″N 81°07′42″W / 38.12222°N 81.12833°W / 38.12222; -81.12833
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Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster
Historical marker "Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster"
LocationGauley Bridge, West Virginia
Coordinates38°07′20″N 81°07′42″W / 38.12222°N 81.12833°W / 38.12222; -81.12833
Causeoccupational silicosis
Deaths476 to 1,000 (estimated)
Hawks Nest Dam photographed in 2022

The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster was a large-scale incident of occupational lung disease 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]


Kanawha and New River Power Company, a subsidiary of Union Carbide, diverted the New River to increase power generation at a plant in Alloy, West Virginia. Beginning in March of 1930, 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.


Facing widespread unemployment during the Great Depression, about three thousand men, three-fourths of whom were black, came to West Virginia to dig the tunnel. They worked ten to fifteen hour shifts, using drills and dynamite to mine the sandstone, which was composed primarily of cemented quartz (silica) sand. The workers completed the project more than twice as quickly as original projections.[2] They were not given any masks or breathing equipment to use while mining, although management wore such equipment during inspection visits. Black workers told Congress in 1936 that they were denied breaks and even forced to work at gunpoint.[2] As a result of the exposure to silica dust, many workers developed silicosis, a debilitating and incurable lung disease caused by the effects of silica dust in the lungs. A large number[which?] 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.[3] Other sources range from 700 to over 1,000 deaths amongst the 3,000 workers.[4] 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.[5][failed verification]

Cultural references[edit]

  • Muriel Rukeyser wrote a poetry sequence, "The Book of the Dead", about this disaster, which can be found in her collection of poems : U.S. 1, New York, Covici and Friede, 1938.
  • Vladimir Pozner's Disunited States (chapter "Cadavers, By-products of Dividends"), Seven Stories Press, 2014 (Les Etats-Désunis was originally published in French 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.
  • Hawks Nest is also mentioned in a section entitled Dying for a Living: The Hawk's Nest Incident in the book Trust Us, We're Experts by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber.
  • Under the pseudonym of "Pinewood Tom," Josh White wrote and sang "Silicosis Is Killing Me," describing the plight of the miners.[6]
  • Included in Saints and Villains, a 1998 novel by Denise Giardina.

Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and a Grave Site[edit]

Grave Site

Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and a Grave Site is located at 98 Hilltop Drive in Mount Lookout, near Summersville Lake and U.S. Route 19 (38°14′04.24″N 80°51′09.22″W / 38.2345111°N 80.8525611°W / 38.2345111; -80.8525611). The site is located several miles from Martha White’s farm at Summersville where many of the black miners were buried, since they were not allowed to be buried in "white" cemeteries.[7] The Memorial has the following text:

This Memorial honors an estimated 764 tunnel workers who died from mining a 3.8 mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain to divert water from the New River to a hydroelectric plant near Gauley Bridge in 1930-31. The tunnel cut through almost pure silica in some areas and exposed the unprotected workers to silica dust that quickly caused acute silicosis, a fatal lung disease. This is considered America's worst industrial disaster. Workers in the tunnel were primarily migrant workers, mostly black, who were paid a few dollars per day. When they became sick, many were driven out of the camps to die elsewhere. Those African Americans who died in the camps could not be buried in local "white" cemeteries. A few were sent by rail back to their families. More were taken at night under the cover of darkness to Summersville and buried unceremoniously on a farm. Later these graves had to be moved to widen US Route 19. The remains were disinterred in 1972 and transported several miles to the present site. The decomposed remains were placed in child size coffins and reburied here, resulting in about 48 small grave depressions seen at this grave site.

Historical Marker at Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and a Grave Site

The memorial was created at the site, unmarked for 40 years, where Department of Highways reburied the bodies of about 48 miners while widening U.S. Route 19. The location of the site was rediscovered with help of West Virginia State University professor Richard Hartman, after local couple George and Charlotte Yeager spearheaded effort to build the memorial in 2009. The Memorial was dedicated on September 7, 2012.[8]

Historical Marker at Hawks Nest State Park

There is also a Historical Marker at nearby Hawks Nest State Park, which reads:[3]

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]


  1. ^ Cherniack, Martin (1986). The Hawk's Nest Incident. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04485-0.
  2. ^ a b Lancianese, Adelina (January 20, 2019). "Before Black Lung, The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds". National Public Radio. Retrieved June 5, 2020.
  3. ^ a b "Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster". West Virginia Department of Culture and History. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
  4. ^ Spangler, Patricia (February 19, 2008). The Hawks Nest Tunnel. Wythe-North Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9801862-0-8.
  5. ^ Keenan, Steve (April 2, 2008). "Book explores Hawks Nest tunnel history". The Fayette Tribune. Archived from the original on April 7, 2008. Retrieved November 25, 2008.
  6. ^ "PopMusic: Silicosis is Killing Me Public health in pop music," Arti Virkud, 2X2 Project
  7. ^ "Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site". Retrieved 3 April 2021.
  8. ^ "Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site". theclio. Retrieved 3 April 2021.

External links[edit]