Hawks Nest Tunnel Tragedy
One of America’s Worst Industrial Disasters
Gauley Bridge, West Virginia
Gauley Bridge is a small, picture postcard West Virginia Town where the New River merges with the Gauley. An old rusty railroad bridge stretches out over the water in a narrow place to the other side. Three wooden crosses are standing on a rock out in mid river – the center cross is stained a golden yellow and the ones on either side are stained a bluish white. Houses dot the sides of the steep hills and line the banks of the river. Stores are somewhere in between. The speed limit is 25 miles per hour through town. An old train station beautifully renovated serves as City Hall. A farmers’ market in the middle of town sells fresh garden vegetables from the river bottom land at Belva which comes to term approximately a full month ahead of gardens further up in the mountains where I live. Pumpkins and bales of straw are available in the autumn.
But hidden beneath this picture postcard scene is an almost forgotten dark history of one of the worst industrial disasters in the America – the Hawks Nest Tunnel Tragedy.
This disaster occurred during the Great Depression Era in the 1930s when times were hard; people were starving to death, and work was scarce. This Country was in such bad shape economically, it is reported prominent business men who had staked their fortune in the stock market, were plunging from high rise windows following the stock market crash in 1929.
However, not all important, powerful, wealthy men felt the urge to meet an untimely fate. No, a group of businessmen opted for a back office somewhere in New York City developing plans for one of the greatest engineering feats of the times. In fact as early as July 31, 1928, a deed was executed between National Water and Power Company and New – Kanawha Power Plant – called Hawks Nest Dam.
The plans involved harnessing the powers of Gauley River, directing the waters through a tunnel converting the water into electricity. This generated electricity would provide the power needed to begin what was later to become known as the “Chemical Valley of the World.”
The Hawks Nest tunnel, located in Fayette County, West Virginia, was part of a project to supply hydroelectric power to the Electro Metallurgical Company, a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation. The excavation work was contracted to the firm of Dennis and Rinehart of Charlottesville, Virginia, which received much of the blame for failing to take proper precautions after it was found that workers were blasting through silica rock.
It is reported the largest percentage of tunnel workers were poor African-Americans from the deep south, desperate for jobs. The migrant workers hopped empty coal trains and freight trains and landed in Gauley Bridge looking for work soon after the contract was awarded. The contract allowed two years for completion of the project. Hundreds of these workers died as a result of breathing the silica dust into their lungs generated by dry drilling which was used to expedite the project. The deaths began as early as two months on the job for some workers.
A marvelous engineering feat was accomplished at the expense of hundreds of human lives and the picturesque river town of Gauley Bridge became known as “The Town of the Living Dead.”