Hawks Nest Dam impounds the New River near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. A significant amount of water flows through a 3½-mile tunnel to a hydroelectric power plant. The construction of the tunnel led to a significant amount of deaths attributed to silicosis.
As early as 1920, the Union Carbide & Carbon Company was developing new facilities in the Kanawha River valley to support the development of alloyed metals, chemicals, and plastics. 18 It had bought a small gasoline plant with a compressor station and natural gas supply in Clendenin and began operations with just a few young chemists. In the early 1930s, the Electro-Metallurgical Company, a subsidiary of Union Carbide & Carbon, had started construction of a factory in Boncar (Alloy) to compound and smelt ores to produce ferroalloys of chromium, manganese, silicon, vanadium, tungsten, and zirconium, essential in the production of iron, steel, and other metals. 14 A forerunner of the plant was located in Glen Ferris which had started smelting ferrochrome in 1896.
To generate electricity for the new Electro-Metallurgical facility, the company’s Kanawha & New River Power Company subsidiary proposed to divert the New River to a 100,000 kW hydroelectric power plant at a total cost of $9 million. 7 13 A dam was proposed below Hawks Nest to divert most of the flow of the New River into a 16,250-foot tunnel under Gauley Mountain, re-entering the river near Gauley Bridge.
Groundbreaking ceremonies for the dam and power plant were held on March 30, 1930, with Dr. W.P. Simmons, a high official of the Kanawha & New River Power, presiding over the event. 13 Geo. T. Lancaster, of the Electro-Metallurgical Company, delivered the opening address. A contract for the dam and tunnel was let to Rinehart & Dennis of Charlotteville, Virginia for $4.2 million, with terms providing for completion of the facility by March 13, 1932.
The first phase of the project entailed the construction of 10 miles of railway along the north side of the New River from Hawks Nest to Gauley Junction, with work beginning on March 31. 13 Elsewhere, buildings were hastily erected at Gauley Bridge to serve as housing and workshops for the dam workers. Generally, workers were crowded into three construction camps and housed in jerry-built shacks that were 12 feet by 15 feet, each divided into two rooms outfitted with a coal heater, bunk beds, and dynamite boxes that workers could salvage from the work site. 18 Eight were confined to the room; each person paid $1 per week for rent and electricity, and 50¢ per week for the services of a local hospital and company doctor. Wages of 35¢ per hour did not stretch far.
About 3,000 men, about two-thirds of whom were Black, came to West Virginia from southern states to dig the tunnel. 7 10 Many were facing widespread unemployment during the Great Depression, and reliable pay and work were welcomed. They worked 10- to 15-hour shifts, using drills and dynamite to mine the sandstone which was compromised mostly of cemented quartz (silica) sand. The boring of the 32- to 36-foot diameter tunnel 7 was started from both portals and met in the center on August 6, 1931. 15 It was essentially completed on August 19, 1931, 10 15 twice as fast as was originally projected. 1
A ceremony attended by Governor Conley and other dignitaries was held on August 19 to celebrate the practical completion of the tunnel. 15 It included a lavish dinner consisting of barbequed mutton, pork, and roast ox, music by the Gill & Schadel orchestra, and dancing at the Lovers Leap Clubhouse.
Water began pouring through the tunnel in late June 1936 and the tunnel was filled by July 1. 16 The water was allowed to rest for a week to ensure the tunnel had no leaks after which workers slowly opened the gates to allow water to turn the four turbines to generate 140,000 horsepower of electricity.
The creation of Hawks Nest Dam formed a 250-acre lake behind the dam while it all but dried up the New River for a five-mile stretch that’s now referred to as the “Dries.” 11
Between September and November 2020, the tunnel was inspected for the first time since its opening. 12
The dry drilling techniques released large amounts of silica dust into the air. The workers were not given masks or specialized breathing equipment to use while mining, although management wore such equipment during inspections. 2 As a result of the exposure to silica dust, many workers developed silicosis, a debilitating lung disease. About 60% of the Hawks Nest workers were unable to work after just two months of underground work, while 80% were rendered disabled after working underground for six months. 8 A large number of the workers eventually died from silicosis, some as quickly as within a year. 2 The tragedy brought formal recognition of acute silicosis as an occupational lung disease that could result in compensation to protect workers.
Lawsuits were soon filed against Rinehart & Dennis, the construction firm that oversaw the boring of the tunnel. 16 P.H. Faulconer, president of the company, stated that the lawsuits were “rackets.” It ultimately paid $170,000 to settle 300 cases out of court (only 3% of the $4 million in damages originally sought) and paid $166,000 to a state compensation fund. The state supreme court threw out 200 other lawsuits as they had not been filed in time. 17 18
Rinehart & Dennis claimed there were only 109 deaths as a result of the silica exposure, but a Congressional hearing placed the death toll at 476. 3 Other sources range from 700 to over 1,000 deaths. 4 An accurate number has been hard to obtain as many workers were transitory and either returned home or left the region after becoming sick. 5 For those that had passed and whose bodies had not been claimed, the question was where to bury the dead as there were a limited number of burial sites for Blacks near Hawks Nest. 6 A small slave cemetery in Summersville had quickly filled to capacity with bodies 8 while others were simply tossed into the New River or buried under tunnel debris. 18
A burial site had been established in a corner of a pasture on a farm owned by the mother of funeral director Hadley White of Summersville. 8 The dead were transported, often under the cover of darkness, to the cemetery where the bodies were dumped in a burial pit. The graves were marked only with number plates.
When US Route 19 was being widened in 1972, 42 of those graves had to be disinterred and moved to a small cemetery a few miles away. 6 8 10 The small graveyard went unmarked and was forgotten for 40 years, the site being used as a dumping ground for roadkill and trash. 8 The site was only rediscovered with the help of West Virginia State University professor Richard Hartman, after local couple George and Charlotte Neilan spearheaded efforts to build a memorial in 2009, which was dedicated on September 7, 2012. 8 9 In addition to the memorial, a Boy Scoot troop from Utah, attending the Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel Scouting Reserve, built and graveled a walkway through the site while students from the New River Community and Technical College fabricated a metal fence around the cemetery. 8 Personnel from the West Virginia Department of Highways and soldiers from the Army National Guard used their equipment to build a parking area and remove debris.
The gravesite and memorial were damaged in May 2019 when a contract crew hired by Appalachian Power cleared the right-of-way for a new power line crossing of US Route 19. 8 10 It cut down every tree in the cemetery that lay in the path of the new line, including native hemlocks that had been inoculated to guard against infestations of the insect pest hemlock wooly adelgid. Additionally, a number of the wooden crosses made by volunteers to mark the graves were crushed by felled trees. Hazardous waist-high stumps were left behind by the crews.
In May, Appalachian Power officials viewed the damage and agreed to make repairs to the cemetery and memorial, which included the planting of redbud and dogwood trees, ground cover to line the graveled walkways, the installation of mulching to limit runoff, and the removal of all stumps above ground level. 8 All of the debris from the cut trees were removed, and rows of modest wooden crosses, painted white, marked the graves. Appalachian Power officials also donated $4,000 to the Nicholas County Historical and Genealogical Society to pay for additional cemetery improvements.
- State: West Virginia
- Type: Dam, Tunnel
- Status: Active - Other
- Lancianese, Adelina. “Before Black Lung, The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds.” National Public Radio, 20 Jan. 2019.
- “The Human Cost of Construction.” DiMarco Araujo Montevideo.
- “Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster.” West Virginia Department of Culture and History. Retrieved 2008-11-25.
- Spangler, Patricia. The Hawks Nest Tunnel: An Unabridged History. Wythe-North Publishing, 2008.
- Keenan, Steve. “Book explores Hawks Nest tunnel history.” Fayette Tribune, 2 Apr. 2008.
- “Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site.” National Park Service.
- “The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: Summersville, WV.” National Park Service.
- Steelhammer, Rick. “Cemetery repairs let Hawks Nest Tunnel workers rest in peace and public learn their story.” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 14 Dec. 2019.
- Nyden, Paul J. “Hawks Nest tunnel workers’ gravesite consecrated.” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 7 Sept. 2012.
- Steelhammer, Rick. “More than 80 years after death, indignities continue for Hawks Nest Tunnel victims.” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 4 May 2019.
- “The Hawks Nest Tunnel and Dam – A History Lesson.” Bridge Day, 27 Jun. 2012.
- Steelhammer, Rick. “Hawks Nest Tunnel to rise from the depths for first time in 85 years.” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 11 Aug. 2020.
- “Giant Undertaking Under Headway On New River.” Fayette Tribune, 2 Apr. 1930.
- “Electro Metallurgical Plant at Alloy on U. S. 21-60, Fayette County, W. Va.” West Virginia & Regional History Center, 26 Jul. 2021.
- “Governor Conley Attends Tunnel Celebration.” Fayette Tribune, 19 Aug. 1931.
- “Great Tunnel at Hawk’s Nest Now Getting Water.” Montgomery News, 26 Jun. 1936.
- “Tunnel Deaths in Hawk’s Nest Project Cited.” Montgomery News, 17 Jan. 1936.
- Jordan, Jennifer. “Hawks’ Nest.” West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, Apr. 1998, pp. 1-3.