The Fayette Journal (WV) reported on February 24, 1933 that 130 of the 3,000 men working on the Hawks Nest Tunnel at Alloy had already died from silicosis, caused from inhalation of silica rock particles, and that 350 others were afflicted with it. The tunnel, built by the New-Kanawha Power Company between 1930-35 in conjunction with the Hawks Nest Dam, harnessed the hydroelectric potential of the Gauley River, initially to provide power for the Electro Metallurgical Company, a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation.
The excavation work had been contracted to the firm of Rinehart and Dennis of Charlottesville, VA, which received much of the blame for failing to take proper precautions after it was found that workers were blasting through silica rock. The two hour period between shifts to allow dust to settle was laxly enforced, even though the contractors were aware of the danger of silicosis.
Acute silicosis kills within a few years of exposure to silica dust, after as little as 2 months exposure. At least 476 workers, most migrant African-Americans, ultimately did die from silicosis. A large number of the dead were reportedly buried in unmarked graves in a Nicholas County cornfield to cover up the immensity of the tragedy. Fifty years later, some studies placed the death toll as high as 764, making it the worst industrial disaster in West Virginia history.
On May 20, 1931, the Fayette Tribune published the first reports of unsafe working conditions in the tunnel, but confirmation was impossible due to a “gag rule.” After he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, Rush Holt brought the plight of the Hawks Nest workers into the national limelight. “Congress has just started to investigate the building of Hawks Nest Tunnel, known as the village of death,” he said. “I personally believe that two thousand men are doomed to die as a result of ruthless destruction of life by American industry.”
Lawsuits originally seeking $4 million in worker compensation were ultimately settled for $130,000, half of which went to the attorneys, who agreed not to further prosecute the companies involved. The terms included all plaintiffs’ records being turned over to the defense. The workers themselves received a pittance: unmarried black men: $400; married black men: $600; unmarried white men: $800; married white men: $1,000. In March 1935 the West Virginia House of Delegates signed into law a new Workmen’s Compensation law that addressed silicosis, and by the end of 1937, 46 states had enacted similar laws covering workers afflicted with the disease.
In 1936, West Virginia Congressman Jennings Randolph sat on a Senate subcommittee investigating the catastrophe. The subcommittee’s report lambasted conditions at Hawks Nest but failed to take further action. Despite the controversy surrounding the project, the tunnel was completed in 1935 and has performed its intended purpose ever since. But 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.”