It’s been called America’s worst industrial disaster. The construction of a three-mile-long tunnel to carry the New River through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia cost as many as 2,000 workers their lives.
At least 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, having contracted silicosis as the result of drilling through miles of rock to build a hydro-electric plant for Union Carbide, which owned the tunnel.
Some 5,000 men worked on the project from March 1930 to December 1931, earning 25 cents an hour and working 60 hours a week. Many of the workers were African-American, and came to West Virginia to work on the project. As they began getting sick with what company doctors called “tunnelitis,” they were unable to return to their homes and those who didn’t die in their beds in the company-owned worker camps were driven out of town to die in nearby towns or were put on trains and sent home.
According to Dr. Helen Lang, an associate professor of Geology at West Virginia University, 60 percent of the men worked less than two months, 80 percent less than six months and 90 percent less than a year. The average length of work was 15 weeks for a black worker and 16 weeks for a white worker.
“Why did so many work less than the total duration of the project when jobs were very scarce and pay was relatively good?” asked Lang.
Silicosis usually was thought of as a slow-moving disease but the Hawk's Nest workers quickly became sick with acute silicosis “caused by massive overexposure to freshly fractured, high-silica dust,” she said.
The mountain rock contained extremely high levels of silica, wet drilling techniques were not used to keep dust levels down and the workers were given no masks or respirators. These factors all contributed to worker deaths, some of which occurred after as little as two months’ exposure in the tunnel.
Many of the workers were local. Shirley Jones was 18 when he died of silicosis. His father, uncle and brothers worked in the tunnel with him and all of them died of silicosis. Union Carbide offered death benefits to his mother of $800 for each of her three sons and $1,000 for her husband. The families of the African American workers were offered $400 for a son and $600 for a husband.
Racism and Jim Crow laws were rampant in the area. The African American workers who died could not be buried in the “white” cemeteries. A few were buried in a nearby slave cemetery, while others were buried in unmarked graves on private property. Local residents claim that some workers were buried along the roads near the tunnel, their bodies covered in rock dug from the mountain.
Roosevelt Singleton was 31 when he died on May 14, 1931. His last work shift was May 2. Although his cause of death was listed as pneumonia, it likely was silicosis. He was buried on a farm owned by the family of local undertaker Hadley White in Summersville, W. Va., in an unmarked grave, along with dozens of other workers. Union Carbide paid White to bury the tunnel workers who died as a result of “pneumonia” or “tunnelitis” who did not live locally or whose families did not claim the bodies.
The bodies in that makeshift cemetery were moved several miles away to unconsecrated ground in 1972, when the state of West Virginia decided to widen U.S. 19. The new burial site in Summersville became a dumping ground for old appliances and highway crews disposing of road kill until local residents Charlotte and Charles Neilan made it their mission to find the graveyard, which they did with the help of West Virginia State University Professor Richard Hartman.
Several groups helped clear debris, build a fence and steps to the cemetery and apply for funding for a historic marker. On Sept. 7, 2012, the names of the dead buried in the cemetery were read and the ground was consecrated in a service performed by three ministers.
“It's important because they were treated so shabbily during their lives. These poor men had a horrible life and they were treated no better in death,” Charlotte Neilan told the Charleston Daily Mail.
For more information about the memorial, visit Hawk’s Nest Worker’s Memorial.