The dust-choked air of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel dig

Posted by | March 29, 2016

xid-66767833_6Please welcome guest author Tim Thornton. Thornton is a writer, journalist, and teacher. He has won awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Phillip D. Reed Memorial Award for Outstanding Writing on the Southern Environment and the Virginia Press Association’s D. Lathan Mims Award for “editorial leadership and service to the community.” He teaches at Ferrum College and Virginia Western Community College. A version of this essay is included in Reflections on the New River: New Essays, Poems and Personal Stories, edited by Chris Arvidson, Scott Pope and Julie E. Townsend and published by McFarland & Co.


“If you hear a siren,” the leader of our little group said, “run like hell.”

We were standing in a scramble of rocks and stunted trees and puddles that should have been a river bed. To get there we’d skittered past ominous red-lettered signs. “Water may rise rapidly,” they declared, “without warning.” We were standing in The Dries.

The Dries are a five-mile stretch of what would be the New River if Hawk’s Nest Dam didn’t send nearly all the river into a more-than-three-mile-long tunnel under Gauley Mountain. There the water falls 162 feet into the turbines of a hydroelectric power plant that powers a smelting plant in the West Virginia community of Alloy. Upstream at Thurmond, near the beginning of the New River Gorge, the average flow over 33 years has been 10,200 cubic feet per second. At Hawk’s Nest, about 10,000 cubic feet of water per second go into the tunnel. Sometimes the flow below Hawk’s Nest Dam is 100 cubic feet per second – less than 1 percent of the river’s natural flow.

Downstream from the rapids of the New River Gorge, Hawk's Nest Dam turns a five-mile stretch of the New into a lethargic stream.

Downstream from the rapids of the New River Gorge, Hawk’s Nest Dam turns a five-mile stretch of the New into a lethargic stream. Photo by the author.


Built during the Depression, the Hawk’s Nest tunnel and dam project is a marvel. More than 80 years after the tunnel was completed and the power plant went online, they continue to generate electricity. But a historical marker near an overlook above Hawk’s Nest Dam says “109 admitted deaths” resulted from the tunneling that began in 1930, though it doesn’t say who admitted the dying. The marker also says a congressional hearing confirmed 476 deaths from the tunnel by 1935.

Martin Cherniack, a doctor and a professor of medicine at University of Connecticut Health Center who wrote the first serious examination of the project, discounts both of those numbers. In The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, Chernicack estimated that at least 764 workers died because of working in the tunnel – and Cherniack made it clear he believes that is a very conservative estimate.

Work on the tunnel began with a ceremonial groundbreaking on the last day of March, 1930. Tunneling from both sides of the mountain, crews worked 10 hour shifts and completed the tunnel 10 weeks ahead of schedule. Men walked from the tunnel covered in so much white dust that people said they looked like ghosts.

Gauley Bridge, the community that sits where the New joins the Gauley to form the Kanawha River, was home to one of the project’s workers’ camps. Gauley Bridge was called “the town of the living dead” back then, according to Charlotte Neilan, co-owner and publisher of The Nicholas Chronicle, a newspaper in nearby Summersville.

Inside the tunnel during construction. Photo courtesy West Virginia State Archives.

Inside the tunnel during construction. Photo courtesy West Virginia State Archives.


“Gauley Bridge did not appreciate that title at all,” she said.

The dust was from pulverized silica rock. Once inhaled, it tore lungs apart, sometimes killing on its own, sometimes killing by weakening lungs until they were destroyed by other diseases. People called it tunnelitis. Its more proper name is acute silicosis, a scarring of lungs caused by breathing silica dust, something officials of the companies behind the project – and doctors who testified on their behalf at trials – claimed to know little or nothing about. It’s a condition, Cherniack wrote, that the Greek historian Herodotus mentioned more than 400 years before Christ was born.

The tunnel provided steady work, by some accounts paying more than the mines that were still running, so it was a magnet for workers. But few of them worked for long. According to Cherniack, 90 percent stayed on the job less than a year; 80 percent stayed less than six months; 60 percent worked for less than two months. The average black worker lasted fifteen weeks. The average white worker lasted a week longer. Some quit. Some became too weak to work or complained about working conditions, then left or were driven from the camps by company security men who’d been deputized into local law enforcement. Some died in accidents or from breathing the dust-choked air in the tunnel.

“The bosses would come in with the masks on,” Neilan said. “They didn’t offer the men any.”

Bosses blamed the men for their deaths, saying they didn’t have good eating habits or they drank too much or fought too much, or gambled outside in the dark too often.

Hawks Nest Tunnel, under construction, at power house portal. Excavation above tunnel portal is to accommodate portal retaining walls. Fan house and air duct running into tunnel are at left, Fayette County, 1 September 1930. Elkem Metals Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, under construction, at power house portal. September 1930. Courtesy Elkem Metals Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Robert Lambie, director of West Virginia’s Department of Mines, inspected the tunnel in 1931. He warned of the danger from silica dust and ordered that the men be given respirators.

He ordered that the tunnel have better ventilation and that the company stop using gasoline engines in the tunnel and start keeping accident and sickness records for workers.

According to Cherniack, the company did stop using gasoline engines inside the tunnel – once company officials realized that breathing the exhaust was making the workers less efficient – but the rest of Lambie’s orders were ignored.

At a congressional committee hearing, Lambie said he orally retracted his written orders when he understood how well and safely conditions were being maintained.

“Lambie’s startling about-face was never explained to everyone’s satisfaction,” Cherniak wrote. “Less than a week after his testimony, however, the Charleston Gazette reported a remarkable coincidence: the former director of the West Virginia Department of Mines had just opened his doors in the prestigious Kanawha Valley Building in the capital city as a private consultant to the leading mining and industrial corporations of the state.”

Some workers and survivors of workers sued Union Carbide, its subsidiary and the contractor in charge of the tunnel. Judge J.W. Eary, who presided over early cases, suggested standard compensation be set at $400 for an unmarried black man; $600 for a black man with a wife; $800 for a single white man; $1,000 for a married white man. Eventually, the families of some dead white workers got as much as $1,600. Some surviving black workers got as little as $30.

Death didn’t necessarily free men’s bodies from abuse. Men who came from outside the area were buried quickly, sometimes anonymously, especially if those men were black. Hadley White, an undertaker from Summersville, hauled some of those men away and buried them on his mother’s farm, in or near a cornfield. White was paid $55 – more than twice the going rate for paupers’ burials, according to Cherniack – to haul the bodies of black workers away at night and bury them more than 25 miles from the tunnel. White admitted to burying 33 men on the family farm. Rumor put the number at 169.


Neilan thinks the bodies were put in coffins before they were buried, though she also tells of bodies being stacked like logs onto wagons for the trip to Summersville, with some of them wedged in standing up so more would fit on a load. White put no markers on the graves.

“It wasn’t spoken of,” Neilan said. “It wasn’t talked about.”

Except maybe in whispers, she said.

“They stayed there until 1972 when they widened US Route 19,” Neilan said. “They had to move them because they were in the way of the road.

“When they were reburied, they were put in child-sized coffins. And it was H.C. White, Hadley White’s son, who reburied them … He had helped his father bring them back to Summersville.”

There were no markers at the new burial site, either. Neilan had trouble finding it.

The graves lie at the foot of a manmade hill that holds the expanded US 19.

The first time Neilan saw the site, “It was a big horrible mess. There was trash all over. There were old refrigerators. It was the biggest mess you’ve ever seen in your life. People were just using it for a dumping ground.”

Neilan and her husband, George, began a campaign to clean up the place and make it look like a cemetery. The further along they got, the more supportive people became.

In 2012, 40 years after the men were reburied, the Neilans organized a ceremony to consecrate the ground and honor the men buried there. Local high school students who’d helped with the project lighted candles and read off the names of the dead. Politicians and preachers spoke. Neilan’s husband carried water from the New River, so they could pour a bit of the river on each of the graves.

Charlotte and George Neilan led the effort to create a proper cemetery for the remains of some of the men who died building the Hawk's Nest tunnel.

Charlotte and George Neilan led the effort to create a proper cemetery for the remains of some of the men who died building the Hawk’s Nest tunnel. Photo by the author.


In The Dries, the New River is sometimes so shallow a person can wade across without getting wet knees. Other times, when it’s rained a lot and the little creeks that run into the New below the dam are roaring, The Dries hold enough water that a person can put a canoe in the river at the power plant and paddle upstream into the fields of rocks, baseball-sized and smaller, piled together into islands. House-sized rocks, worn smooth as skipping stones, hide miniature coves with tiny sand beaches. Boulders wear ripples that look like windblown sand. Two-story rocks bear notches and holes and current-carved scars far above the modern water line. It’s as if paddlers aren’t on the river, but under it, looking up at where the current should be raging.

On one of those trips, as I paddled back downstream, the power plant was giving the New River back. Water that had rushed through that tunnel under Gauley Mountain surged across the river’s languid flow toward Gauley Bridge, churned against a rocky bank and rolled back toward the power plant.

I felt the confounding current’s pull and leaned harder into my paddle to get past it.


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