It’s been called the worst industrial disaster in American history, and it occurred during the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in the 1930s. Hundreds of miners, mostly African-American men, died from silicosis, caused by exposure to silica dust in the tunnel. The miners were drilling through miles of rock to build a hydroelectric plant for Union Carbide, which owned the tunnel.
But the rock they were digging through happened to be silica. “This was actually a dividend for Union Carbide, which could use silica in the production of steel at Alloy. The company’s reward was the miners’ doom,” JSTOR Daily wrote. In fact, about 764 of the 1,213 men who worked underground at Hawk’s Nest for at least two months died within five years of the tunnel’s completion, after contracting silicosis, according to EHS Today.
Thousands of men who were in search of jobs during the Great Depression had been attracted to the project when it started in March 1930. Three-fourths were African Americans fleeing the South.
“To these men, going to West Virginia was like going to heaven — a new land, a new promised land — and when they got here, they found that they had ended up in a hellhole,” Matthew Watts, a minister and amateur historian in Charleston, W.Va, was quoted by NPR.
Thousands of men who worked on the project from March 1930 to December 1931, earned 25 cents an hour and worked 60 hours a week. Workers who were working on the tunnel at Gauley Mountain soon started getting sick due to their exposure to silica. Locals remember seeing them often coming out of the tunnel covered in white silica dust. As more men started getting sick and dying at the tunnel, Gauley Mountain became known as the “town of the living dead”. Union Carbide documents show that 80 percent of the workers became ill, died or walked off the job after six months.
Doctors were initially unclear as to what was happening. Martin Cherniack, a University of Connecticut professor who wrote a 1986 book about the tunnel, said workers at the tunnel “would become sick, profoundly short of breath, have severe weight loss, basically be unable to move and function and exercise themselves.”
Company doctors later started misdiagnosing worker deaths or blaming them on a disease they called “tunnelitis.” The company would then use those death certificates to deny silicosis deaths at the tunnel, a report by NPR said.
Silicosis was considered a slow-moving disease at the time, however, the tunnel workers quickly became sick with acute silicosis “caused by massive overexposure to freshly fractured, high-silica dust,” Dr. Helen Lang, an associate professor of Geology at West Virginia University, was quoted by EHS Today. Three-quarters of the workers who were African American were given the “dirtiest and deadliest work”. Apart from being paid less than their White counterparts, these African-American workers were not allowed to have breaks in clean air as often as they would love to. If they fell sick, supervisors would force them to get back to work.
What’s more, they were not given masks or respirators. Many of those who fell sick after being exposed to silica couldn’t go back to their homes. Amid Jim Crow laws, those who died at the tunnel were buried in unmarked graves or at a nearby slave cemetery. Those who did not die in their beds in the worker camps owned by the company were forced out of town. They would die later in nearby towns as their lungs were damaged.
Dozens of African-American workers were also buried in a mass grave on the family farm of local undertaker Hadley White in Summersville, W. Va. In the 1970s, the farm was excavated to pave way for a new road. Authorities reburied the bodies of the workers at Whippoorwill. Recently, the cemetery, which was left to rot, was restored by local newspaper publisher Charlotte Yeager, according to NPR.
It is unclear how many people died from the tunnel disaster. Although authorities put the death toll at around 300, historians say it was more than 700. Years after the deaths of the tunnel workers, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor held a hearing on the disaster. The committee said the tunnel was completed with “grave and inhuman disregard for all consideration for the health, lives, and future of the employees.”
Officials after their investigation also indicated that silicosis was not a disease that was unheard of, adding that it was “well known to the medical profession and to all properly qualified engineers.” Still, no action was taken against the tunnel companies. Congress however did pass a law demanding the use of respirators in dusty working conditions.
The disaster also resulted in several legal proceedings, including over 300 lawsuits. Union Carbide offered death benefits to families. But, as Crandall and Crandall wrote, “The total amount of damages represented just over one percent of the project cost.”
Today, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is mostly forgotten, although novels have been written about it and documentaries made.