The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster
involved injuries and deaths as the result of the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia
, as part of a hydroelectric
project. The three mile tunnel
, diverting the New River
under Gauley Mountain, was constructed by Union Carbide
beginning in 1927. In the tunnel, they discovered silica
and the workers were asked to mine this valuable mineral used in the electroprocessing of steel, but were not given masks for protection, even though management wore such masks during the short times they visited for inspection. As a result, many workers died from silicosis
, sometimes as quickly as within a single year. There are no definitive statistics, but several sources agree that resulting fatalities probably totaled approximately 700 of the 2,000 workers.
Muriel Rukeyser wrote a poetry sequence, "The Book of the Dead", about this disaster, which can be found in her book, U.S. 1 (published in 1938).
Hubert Skidmore, a West Virginian, immortalized the tragic events from the common man's perspective in his book Hawk's Nest: A Novel which followed the fictional accounts of several tunnel workers and their families. Skidmore wrote the book only a few years after the incident and likely used direct sources for his story development. (published in 1941, republished in 2004)
A nearby West Virginia Historical Marker at Hawks Nest State Park reads:
- "Construction of nearby tunnel, diverting waters of New River through Gauley Mt for hydroelectric power, resulted in state's worst industrial disaster. Silica rock dust caused 109 admitted deaths in mostly black, migrant underground work force of 3,000. Congressional hearing placed toll at 476 for 1930-35. Tragedy brought recognition of acute silicosis as occupational lung disease and compensation legislation to protect workers."