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Hawk's Nest Historical Marker
Hawk's Nest Historical Marker

The Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster
Gauley Bridge, Fayette County, West Virginia

The New Kanawha Power Company, a subsidiary of Union Carbide, drilled the Hawk's Nest Tunnel in 1930 and 1931 to divert the New River to provide hydroelectric power for a steel alloy production plant.

The Rinehart & Dennis Company from Charlottesville, Virginia, was awarded the two-year contract from Union Carbide for construction of the tunnel.  Engineers from Union Carbide were in charge of overseeing the operation.
Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster Memorial

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In 1930 the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation was in the process of building its new electrometallurgical plant in nearby Boncar (later known as Alloy).  It was decided a hydroelectric power station would be constructed near Gauley Bridge with a tunnel built nĂ©ar Hawks Nest.  This tunnel would divert the water of the New River to provide the needed energy to rotate the turbines.  Work soon began on the three mile long Hawks Nest Tunnel, which is still considered a marvel of engineering.  For the most part, the tunnel was completed in December of 1932, only eighteen months after construction began.  Workers dug from each end of the tunnel and when they met the center lines were only off one inch.

Nearly 5,000 men worked on this project, with 3,000 of them working underground.  Some were from the local area, but many were African Americans who had migrated, mostly from the southern states, in search of steady work.  Completion of this tunnel came at a great cost however.  As they cut their way through the mountain, workers were exposed to high levels of pure silica dust.  Combined with the confined space, poor ventilation, and lack of breathing protection, the results were disastrous.  By 1936, more than 400 deaths had been attributed to silicosis contracted while working in the tunnel.  However, some believe that the actual number could be as many as 2,000 as indicated in a 1936 Congressional report which revealed there were another 1,500 men suffering from silicosis contracted while working in the tunnel.  The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster remains the worst industrial disaster in United States history.  The tunnel and the power station are still in use today.

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The Hawk's Nest Disaster was not a mining disaster per say, but it has been called the worst industrial disaster in the history of the United States.  The incident occurred in 1930 with the drilling of the three mile hydro-electric water diversion tunnel.  It was built to supply power to a Industrial complex on the nearby Kanawha River.  The tunnel was dug through high grade silica rich sandstone which when drilled produced a very fine dust, that when breathed, was comparable to inhaling finely ground glass particles into the lungs.

The men hired to construct the tunnel were migrant workers desperately traveling Depression Era America in search of employment.  The majority of the Hawk's Nest workers were African-Americans.  Since the drilling of the tunnel was not technically a mining operation, there were no underground safety regulations in place.  The men were working in confined spaces with no ventilation, dust control, or dust masks.

Quickly they fell victim to silicosis, the deadly accumulation of silica particles in the lungs.  The men were unable to tolerate these conditions for more than a couple of months before they fell ill and had to be replaced.  The officials in charge decided the most cost effective way to handle the crisis was not to acknowledge the dangers, stop work and provide safer conditions, but to deny the reality of the situation, keep hiring a steady stream of new workers and complete the tunnel as quickly as possible.

The mystery of the Hawk's Nest tragedy is the uncertainty of its final results.  The companies involved never acknowledged responsibility, or provided information to help account for the total number of people who died or were disabled by the tunnels construction.  The estimates for deaths from this tragedy range from 700 to 2000, with several thousand more sick and disabled.

The Hawk's Nest Tunnel is still in operation.  Water diverted for the tunnel comes from the impoundment on the New River at Hawk's Nest Dam which is visible from the overlooks at Hawk's Nest State Park.

Throughout the park, you will find the crumbling remnants and ruins of New River Gorge's industrial past.  These are the monuments that remain to remind us of the lives of the people that were the true source of our nation's power.

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