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In the early 1930s there was a terrible loss of human life for workers involved in the construction of a water tunnel in West Virginia. The tunnel was to supply water from a dam on the New River to a hydro-electric power plant. The power plant was to supply electricity to a new metals plant producing aluminum and silica metals. The dam and power plant were part of the overall project. The tunnel gained the name Hawk’s Nest Tunnel based on its location along the New River.

The story is complex. No one will ever know the complete story. There are few detailed records. There are many individual stories. Years later only a few authors conducted extensive research into records that did exist and attempted to tell the sad story. Much of the story is lost. At the time of the project and afterward, the story gained little national attention. In addition, many local people affected by the tragedy blocked the experience from their minds while trying to move on with their lives.

There were several private companies and government agencies involved in the planning, approval, completion and aftermath of the project. Countless details no longer exist or remain private. Many workers filed lawsuits, but only one went to trial for which testimony exists. There were few exposure standards and regulations at the time for employee record keeping, worker’s compensation, health exposures, and hazard controls.

This story is important for those engaged in safety and health practice. It raised the importance of protection from exposure to silica dust. The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy is one of the greatest industrial health and safety events in United States history. Yet few in safety and health practice today know about it and any of its details. 

This article tries to summarize the story, offer some details, and explain some complexities affecting the outcome. Interested readers should refer to the references cited for this article for a lot more information.

The Toll

The exact loss of life, the incidence of silicosis, and the rate of disability related to this project will never be known. While it took only 18 months to dig the tunnel itself, in less that 5 years afterward many workers died from acute silicosis. No one knows the exact count. The contractor estimated that fewer than 100 workers died from silica dust exposure. The results of a later congressional hearing concluded the toll was 476 fatalities. An estimate based on comprehensive epidemiological studies by Cherniack decades later placed the loss of life from silicosis related to the project at 764.

Many others suffered with silicosis and other lung disorders at some point following employment and could no longer do physical work and became unable to hold gainful employment the rest of their lives. This group may have raised the number of silicosis cases to as many as 1,500 or more.

The Place

Hawk’s Nest is the name of a location along the New River that flows through West Virginia. The area is now a state park. The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, still in operation, is about 30 miles southeast of Charleston in the West Virginia mountains. A few miles downstream (northwest) from the dam is a community named Gauley Bridge, where the New River and Kanawha River connect. About three miles southwest of Gauley Bridge is the town of Alloy, WV. Initially, the name was Boncar (a variation of the word CARBON). See Figure 1.

The tunnel began at a dam near Hawk’s Nest. Constructing the dam was part of the project. The tunnel progressed about three miles northwest to the point along the New River to the site of the power plant. The distance between the two points provided a drop in elevation of about 160 feet which would provide an excellent source of energy for the turbines and generators of the power plant. The power plant was to supply electricity to a metal production plant planned for Alloy.  

The Time Period

The tunnel project began in early 1930 and ended in late 1933. Contractors completed the entire project in less than three years. The contractor completed the tunnel itself in about 18 months. 

The United States was in the Great Depression following the Crash of 1929. Millions of people were out of work. Families were destitute, often struggling for food. Wages were depressed and there were few benefits for workers.

Social Security and other employment laws did not exist that later required employers to make records of employees and compile such basic information as a home address for contacting them. If workers did not show up for work or discontinued employment and left, the employer had to find new workers.

Figure 1. The area of West Virginia involved in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy.

In many instances, safety and health in workplaces were an afterthought. Many employers paid little attention to providing a safe workplace. The competition for jobs made it easy to ignore the value of workers. Few laws were in place to protect people in the workplace or to make records of injuries or disabilities.

The danger of exposure to crystalline silica was quite well known. However, there was limited medical knowledge of the amount of exposure necessary to induce silicosis, a form of pneumoconiosis. There was even less knowledge about acute silicosis resulting from heavy inhalation of silica dust. There was little knowledge about the amount of exposure that would lead to the disease. Usually, there was a delay between exposure and recognizable disease. There were few measures of the amount or duration of dust exposure. There were no exposure standards.

In addition, most physicians did not receive training to diagnose silicosis. Some relied on X-rays to determine lung disease that was already in place. Prior to this event, few recognized acute silicosis. Some confused X-rays of silicosis with those of tuberculosis because the two looked very similar.

Industrial hygiene, which focuses on recognition, evaluation and control of work-related illnesses, was in its infancy and many employers did not have such specialists. In fact, a professional industrial hygiene organization did not exist until late in the decade of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project.

Some construction companies had learned how to reduce silica exposure. They used a technique called “wet drilling” that kept drilling processes in silica from creating breathable dust. Some also used exhaust ventilation to reduce the areas of potential exposure to silica dust. The amount of exhaust ventilation needed was not clearly known.

Some states had adopted worker’s compensation laws. However, in many cases, laws excluded or did not include silicosis as a compensable workplace disease. Often there were other legal barriers. For example, when silicosis became compensable in West Virginia shortly after the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project, the law set a one-year statute of limitations for filing a claim following initial exposure.

At the time of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project, the overall conditions for worker protection from silica dust were very unfavorable for workers.

The Players

The history of West Virginia in the late 1800s and very early 1900s saw the state mineral wealth and electric power as longer term solutions to its economic dependence on coal. Electricity would make use of water power from the rivers of the state. Electricity soon became known as “white coal.”

A prominent West Virginia corporation was the Electro-Metallurgical Company. It absorbed the Willson Aluminum company which had built a timber dam and power plant at Kanawha Falls, just downstream from Gauley Bridge. The Electro-Metallurgical Company would join with other investors in organizing the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation and become a separate unit of the corporation. This unit’s main interest was producing aluminum and other metals that required high temperature processes that relied on electric power. It had acquired a sizeable property in Boncar (later named Alloy), WV for a new metal producing facility. It did preliminary engineering work for a new power plant before becoming part of Union Carbide.

The primary company involved in the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project was the Union Carbide and Carbon Company. The long-term vision for the future of West Virginia led to the company’s vision for the power plant project. It did most of the preliminary planning. The company bought much land adjacent to the New River and Kanawha River. Union Carbide created a business structure involving other companies that placed it in somewhat of a background role for the tunnel project, other than depending on its own engineers to oversee the details.

In 1927 Union Carbide created a subsidiary, the New-Kanawha Power Company, as a public service utility company. It filed for a permit from the West Virginia Public Service Commission to construct a dam across the New River near Hawk’s Nest. In 1933 Union Carbide transferred the New-Kanawha Power Company to the Electro-Metallurgical Company. After completing the tunnel, dam and power plant, Union Carbide dissolved the New-Kanawha Power Company in 1935. During its existence, the New-Kanawha Power Company never operated an electrical utility.

In May 1927 the New-Kanawha Power Company also applied for a permit for the project from the Federal Power Commission. However, no response was forthcoming from this agency overseeing rivers because of arguments over its constitutional authority. For many years the Commission failed to act on several permit requests.

During preliminary planning, bores into Gauley Mountain identified nearly pure silica. Silica was an essential element for producing high strength aluminum and steel and other silica metals. Much of the contents of the proposed water tunnel provided additional raw materials for the potential metals plant at Boncar.

After receiving bids from 29 companies to build the tunnel and power plant, the New-Kanawha Power Company awarded Reinhard and Dennis Company a contract on March 13, 1930. Having constructed many other tunnels and power plants, it was a highly experienced and qualified contractor. The contract spelled out the terms for medical care, safety precautions, ventilation, food, water, and housing and included rights for onsite observation and inspection of work.

At the start of the project, the project constructed a rail line along the New and Kanawha Rivers between the tunnel area and Boncar. The purpose was to haul much of the excavated earth called “muck” to a depository on the new metal manufacturing site. Of greatest interest was the silica needed for some metals.

The Project

Overall, most observers recognize the tunnel project as an engineering marvel. The contractor completed work on time or ahead of schedule. The finishing details, such a concrete and steel lining in parts of the tunnel, the power plant and the dam were high quality. The power plant has been in operation ever since.

The project began on March 31, 1930, 18 days after contract award and reached full capacity by June 1930. Reinhard and Dennis Company completed the tunnel work in about 18 months and the entire project by December 1931,well under two years. At maximum rate, the excavation operations moved the tunnel at 250 to 300 feet per week. At that rate, work likely did not employ effective protective procedures for workers.

There were four shafts to create the tunnel. Shaft 1 began at the site of the future power plant at the north end. Shaft 1 extended through Gauley Mountain. Shaft 4 began at the south end near the dam. From a more central location at a ravine was a large vertical shaft from which Shafts 2 and 3 extended, each in opposite directions. Toward the end of the project the large, vertical central shaft became the site of a surge basin to handle tunnel overflow. See Figure 2.


The contract called for tunnel shafts to be 28 feet in diameter. Once construction began, the owner increased the diameter to 31 feet. However, as workers reached the high (90% or greater) silica area of Gauley Mountain, the owner increased the tunnel diameter to as much as 46 feet. The larger diameter resulted in doubling the volume of muck and silica removed. The railroad hauled the high value silica to the manufacturing site in Boncar (Alloy), WV.

The Workers

The contractor’s first task was acquiring workers. Various records suggest that nearly 5,000 people worked on the tunnel project. Nearly 2,000 worked outside the tunnel on the dam, power plant and other components. About 1,500 worked inside the tunnel only and another 1,500 worked at some time both inside and outside the tunnel. Only 738 white workers ever worked inside the tunnel. Many were from local communities. About 75% of those who ever worked inside the tunnel were African-Americans. Of those, a few were local, but the vast majority were migrants recruited from the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

Among workers, there was a high rate of turnover. On average, African-American workers held employment for 15 weeks, whites for 16 weeks. Sixty percent of all workers lasted no more than two months. Minor complaints often led to dismissal or workers terminated employment for their own reasons. Many found the work and the working and living conditions intolerable.

Reports identify significant discrimination and poor treatment for African-American workers compared to white workers. The culture at the time in West Virginia did not treat African-American people with the same regard as white people. There were local Jim Crow standards. As a result, African-American workers in the tunnel project received very discriminatory treatment.

Living Conditions

The contractor, Reinhard and Dennis Company, created camps for the many migrant workers. There was a camp for each tunnel. The camps had shacks for living, sleeping and dining. Shacks were about 10 by 12 feet in size. The walls were thin, made of tar paper. There was a half window in one side and a home-made door. There were double bunks stretched across one side of the room. Shacks segregated workers by race. For white workers, the contractor assigned about 15 workers to a shack. For African-American workers, the number assigned to each shack was almost double. It was not uncommon for as many as 15 workers to sleep in one bunk. 

Workers had to pay rent every Friday to the contractor for their housing and board. They also paid for coal for heating and, if provided, for electricity. They had to buy bedding. Workers brought the used dynamite boxes from the tunnel to sit on. Some reports placed the rent about six dollars per week, which was about half the weekly pay for a laborer and about a quarter of the pay for a driller.

The Work

Typically, those working inside a tunnel worked in 10 hour shifts, six days a week. The explosives were set off near the end of a shift. Then the area was ventilated for two hours before the next shift began.

The two main tunneling tasks were drilling and mucking. Drilling occurred during part of a work day. Drills bored holes into the tunnel wall and floor. Drilling to move the tunnel wall forward involved working in tiers because of the tunnel height or diameter. Horizontal drilling and blasting moved the wall forward, leaving a floor at that tier. As the floor became wide, vertical drilling and blasting removed the excess part of a tier’s floor until reaching the final tunnel floor. There could be multiple tiers in operation at one time. After achieving the desired floor level, some workers laid tracks for cars hauling the muck from the tunnel.

After completing drilling, workers filled the holes with explosives. Workers moved back in the tunnel before detonating explosives.

There were also crews to make the floor smooth and to lay track for cars that hauled away the material loosened by blasting.

The drills were mounted on stands and weighed about 80 pounds. When drilling horizontally, a “driller” needed an assistant to manage the drill and create the hole that was to be ten to fifteen feet deep. Vertical drilling into the floor required only one worker.

Mucking occurred to remove the loose materials. An electrically powered shovel cleared most of the muck and placed it in narrow-gage “dickey” cars that made up a train. Small locomotives moved the trains to the surface where workers dumped muck into rock crushers and removed it from the area.

Mucking and cleanup consumed about half of a shift. Then mockers became drillers or assistants for most of the remaining portion of the shift. The detonation part of the shift took about an hour.

There were various accounts of a typical shift. Some reported having to return to mucking after standing back in the tunnel during a detonation. In such cases, the workers would have encountered heavy dust when resuming mucking.

At the dam end of the tunnel, other crews lined the tunnel with concrete. They created wood forms and sprayed concrete on the wall surfaces. At the power plant end, crews lined the tunnel with steel. The ends contained shale that was likely to erode from flowing water, thus requiring the linings. There was no lining between the ends because that part of the tunnel was rock and flowing water would not erode it.

 Workers received between 30 and 60 cents per hour for a ten hour shift. The rates differed for foremen, drillers, mockers, and heavy equipment operators. There was also a pay differential by race. Overall, the pay rates were somewhat higher than pay for work in area coal mines.

Working Conditions

In court testimony, the contractor claimed that the normal work schedule, exhaust ventilation and other means kept the dust to a minimum. Some claimed that the contractor used lookouts to alert the foremen when the government inspectors were coming so there would be little dust. However, testimony by workers gave a very different account, describing extremely dusty conditions. 

People not employed in the tunnel reported that the workers and their clothes all looked white when they came outside after their shifts.

Men had to work whether they wanted to or not, even when they were sick. There were shack rousters to get workers to the tunnel. Some rousters carried guns and some who were sheriff deputies threatened jail for those who did not go to work.

Racial discrimination applied to African-American workers. Many were forced back into the tunnel shortly after blasting, while foremen allowed white workers 30 minutes before returning. Some foremen overseeing African-American workers carried baseball bats and some used them.

Some claimed that to speed up the project and keep it on schedule, the contractor did not use wet drilling methods or furnish workers with respirators. Engineers for the Rinehart and Dennis Company and the New Kanawha Power Company who inspected the mine and checked on work progress used respirators. 

There was some analysis of the capacity of the exhaust fans. Those with knowledge determined that the fans did not have a sufficient flow rate to remove airborne dust from the work areas effectively.

Testimony said that workers did not know of the dangers related to their work because Rinehart and Dennis did not post notices of the danger.

The Records

As already noted, records showed progress on the contracted work and that Rinehart and Dennis completed the project slightly ahead of schedule and within budget. 

The contractor had poor records for workers, work conditions, injuries, illnesses, and death.

Because there were no laws requiring record keeping of workers, there is no exact record of who worked in the tunnel, how long they worked, and whether they had job-related injuries or were killed on the job or contracted silicosis. There were some company doctors who were to handle worker medical issues, but testimony claimed that access to a physician by a worker often was delayed, even though workers had medical fees deducted from their pay. Testimony claimed that doctors could not tell workers they had silicosis. One doctor testified that he told men they had “tunnelitis.” There were some general records of the number of work-related injuries and deaths. There were no records of exposures to any kind of dust and what level of dust workers encountered.

Some workers died on the job. In several cases, especially when an African-American worker died, Reinhard and Dennis paid an undertaker to bury the workers quickly, sometimes in their dusty work clothes. The undertaker testified that he ran out of room in a pauper cemetery and buried bodies in the corn field of his family farm. The unverified number of such burials is set at 169 in the literature.

The Legal Challenges

The tragedy at Hawk’s Nest led to many lawsuits. Most were filed in the local Fayette County court. However, before the court heard the suits, there was a need to obtain a ruling from the West Virginia Supreme Court whether the state worker’s compensation law in place at the time covered silicosis claims against Rinehart and Dennis or whether liability attached directly to the contractor. The Supreme Court ruled that silicosis was not compensable. The contractor lost its appeal. That led to a flood of lawsuits.

Within two weeks of the Supreme Court decision, attorneys filed 111 personal injury suites containing requests for nearly $3 million in damages. Soon the first trial began. Before its completion, the number of suites against the contractor grew to more than 250.

The first full trial of Raymond Johnson v. Rinehart and Dennis and E.. J. Perkins (Perkins was an officer of the contractor company) began on 16 March 1933. The plaintiff attorneys called 175 witnesses and the defense attorneys 75. The plaintiff’s case cited seven complaints:

  1. Willful negligence by not providing workers adequate protection or information on risk.
  2. Willful negligence in creating unsafe working conditions.
  3. Refusing on-site inspections by the state of West Virginia until ordered by a court.
  4. Maintaining a system of signals and watchmen to alert the mine operation of mine inspectors.
  5. Negligence by not using water while drilling.
  6. Negligence for failure to provide proper ventilation.
  7. Running a non-mining operation while extracting commercial grade silica. 

Some claimed there was some jury tampering. Others claimed the judges provided flawed instructions to the jury. The case ended in a hung jury. Before an appeal to resurrect the case reached the court, the plaintiff died and the case ended.

A second case moved forward, but the overwhelming number of similar cases led to a dismissal of the jury and an out-of-court settlement. The sum of all claims was $4 million, but ended in a $130,000 settlement, half of which went to attorneys. The plaintiffs divided the remainder, which averaged about $400. The maximum payment was $1600. The agreement also required that plaintiffs surrender all their case records to the defendant, Rinehart & Dennis, which ended further litigation.

While West Virginia had instituted a worker’s compensation law at the time, initially it did not cover silicosis, as was the case for most other states that had implemented worker’s compensation laws by the early 1930s. After the Hawk’s Nest tunnel project, West Virginia added coverage for silicosis. However, the change had a one-year statute of limitations for filing a claim based on the onset of exposure. In most cases, workers could not identify the onset date or did not have a clear diagnosis of silicosis within the one year.

A U.S. Congressman from New York, Vito Marcantonio, learned of the Hawk’s Nest tunnel tragedy and initiated a Congressional investigation in 1936: The Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities. A House of Representatives Subcommittee on Labor handled the investigation. The investigation brought some national attention to the tragedy through testimony of witnesses. The Subcommittee’s letter of finding included the following: “Silicosis is one of the greatest menaces among occupational diseases and State laws governing prevention and compensation are totally inadequate.” Congress took no further action.

Views from the Sidelines

The tragedy of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel project gained the attention of several individual writers. Among the references for this article are several novels that capture the sad impacts of silicosis on workers and their families. Several writers captured the story in poems. One poem, written by an 18 year old girl (Martha Millet), first appeared in print in 1936. These pieces of American literature incorporate the tragedy into American culture.

The Lessons for Safety and Health

This unbelievable tragedy that created suffering for hundreds of workers and many more members of their families could have been avoided. It offers an opportunity for students of safety and health and those in the safety and health professions to understand and analyze how the tragedy may have been avoided. Obviously, since 1930 much has changed and there is a greater understanding of silicosis and how to protect workers who must work with silica. There are much better means for measuring exposures. There are improved ways to prevent silica dust and minimize exposures. There are improvements in engineering, management methods and personal protective equipment that can reduce the likelihood of workers acquiring silicosis. This story provides a learning opportunity that has been largely lost to history. It is recommended that readers of this article delve into the references and use this case as “lessons learned.” It is not acceptable to repeat this tragedy, even at a much smaller scale.


There are few places to find comprehensive references on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy. Two authors’ books provided much of the information presented here. They both completed major research work through court, newspaper, magazine, government and company records where they existed. However, some have observed that the incident was nearly lost among the local residents because they wanted the impacts on them out of their minds. 


  • Martin Cherniack, The Hawk’s Nest Incident – America’s Worst Industrial Disaster, Yale University Press, 1986.This is a detailed account of the incident compiled from extensive research into available records. It includes a comprehensive epidemiological study to estimate the number of silicosis cases and deaths.
  • Patricia Spangler, The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, Wythe-North Publishing, 2008.This author compiled many documents from company, public, court, and published sources that contain details about the disaster. The book is mainly a collection of those records.


Cultural Publications

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy found its way into American literature.

  • Muriel Rukeyser and Mary Naumburg, The Book of the Dead, West Virginia University Press, 2018. Muriel Rukeyser, a noted American poet, wrote about the Hawk’s Nest tragedy in her poem, The Book of the Dead. It was originally published in 1933 and then in a collection of poems she titled, U.S.1 by Covici, Freide, 1938. Mary Naumburg photographed tunnel conditions on a visit to the area with Ms. Rukeyser in the 1930s. Those photos appear in this new edition of the book containing the poem.
  • Tim Dayton, Muriel Rukeyser’s – The Book of the Dead, University of Missouri Press, 2003. A critical review of the poem.
  • Juneus F. Kendall, Hawk’s Nest: Holocaust in the Hills of West Virginia, Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2012. This is a novel based on the events at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.
  • Dwight Harshberger, Witness at Hawks Nest, Mid-Atlantic Highlands Publishing, 2009. A novel based on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy.
  • Hubert Skidmore, Hawk’s Nest: A Novel, University of Tennesee Press, 2004. A novel based on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy. The first edition was published in 1941 by Doubleday under the title: Hawk’s Nest: A Novel of America’s Disinherited. Some claim that Union Carbide convinced Doubleday to pull and destroy all copies of the 1941 edition.
  • Kathryn Heisenfelt, John Payne and the Menace at Hawk’s Nest, Kessinger Publishing, 2005. A novel that is an extension of the author’s first account in 1941.


Internet References

Most of the internet references are short accounts that recall the Hawk’s Nest disaster long after it occurred. The Internet did not exist until about 60 years after the Hawk’s Nest tragedy. Most articles have one or more photographs. Several photographs came from the West Virginia Archives.

Poem: Silicosis In Our Town by Martha Millet

First published in the Daily Worker (a New York Socialist newspaper) on June 2, 1936. Miss Millet was 18 years old when she wrote this poem based on her experience in the community of Gauley Bridge, WV. The poem is offered here as a tribute to her and those she wrote about.

One day that old man Bones he come
A~knockin’ at my door—
Now Charlie Jones give heed ‘cause you
Ain’t gonna live much more.

For I was cold and weary
And I was hungry too
So I went into that mountain
To drill the tunnel through.

The water that they gave us
It was covered up with white
And the dust so thick in front of you
You couldn’t see no light.

My youngest son he died there
And he was but eighteen.
O folks it is the saddest thing
A father’s ever seen.

But ere he closed his eyes he said—
Please cut me open wide,
O father dear and mother dear,
Find out what’s wrong inside—

His lungs was hard and withered
There was no room for air.
He died from a dread sickness
That he got while working there.

Twice more we sat and prayed there
And could not go to sleep.
It breaks a father’s heart to see
His sons die out like sheep.

The Union Carbide Company
They sent us into that gloom.
Two thousand good and strong men
They sent right to their doom.

It was twenty million dollars
That tunnel cost to crash,
But the lives of common workingmen
Are cheap as any trash.

They did not spend a penny
To save our life and health.
They did not lift a finger
While we made their bloody wealth.

Well, folks we gave our labor
And did out best to please
And now us men are dead and dying
Of that dread disease.

It gets into your body and
It eats your lungs away.
This dreaded silicosis
It makes you choke all day.

Five hundred men have passed away
A~gaspin’ for their breath
And fifteen hundred more are sentenced
To a living death.

They dumped them in a cornfield
They crowded them right close
They did not even wash their hands
Or change their working clothes.

Now often you may see their loved ones
Seeking them at dark.
Their bones lie in that cornfield
And those graves they have no mark.

I wake up on the morning,
And I go to bed at night,
And folks, that old man Bones he lies
Right down there by my side.

How can I eat, how can I sleep
How can I face the sun?
A man feels lowdown when his days
Are numbered every one.

A man with silicosis cannot work
How hard he tries—
O must he see his wife and children
Starve before his eyes?

Say brother in that cornfield
Move over just a pace.
It won’t be long but I’ll be comin’ round
To claim my place.

You folks who think that human lives
Are worth far more than gold,
To the Union Carbide Company
You must raise your voices bold.

You women folks and mothers
Who love your dearest ones,
You must speak out for the lives
Of your husbands and your sons.

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