It happened during the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in the 1930s, and has been dubbed the biggest industrial disaster in American history. Hundreds of miners, predominantly African-American males, perished of silicosis as a result of the tunnel’s silica dust exposure. Union Carbide, which owned the tunnel, was boring through miles of rock to build a hydropower plant.
However, the rock they were excavating through was silica. “This was a windfall for Union Carbide, which could use silica in the steelmaking process at Alloy. JSTOR Daily noted, “The company’s reward was the miners’ doom.”
According to EHS Today, around 764 of the 1,213 men who worked underground at Hawk’s Nest for at least two months died of silicosis within five years of the tunnel’s completion.
Thousands of men looking for work during the Great Depression were drawn to the project when it began in March 1930. African Americans made up three-quarters of those escaping the South.
According to Matthew Watts, a minister and amateur historian in Charleston, W.Va., “coming to West Virginia was like going to heaven — a new land, a new promised land,” and “when they came here, they realized that they had landed up in a hellhole.”
Thousands of men worked on the project between March 1930 and December 1931, earning 25 cents per hour and working 60 hours per week. Workers on the Gauley Mountain tunnel immediately began to become ill as a result of their exposure to silica. Locals recall seeing them emerge from the tunnel covered in white silica dust on several occasions.
Gauley Mountain became known as the “town of the Living Dead” as more soldiers grew ill and died at the tunnel. According to Union Carbide data, within six months, 80% of the workers were ill, died, or quit.
Initially, doctors were baffled as to what was going on. Workers at the tunnel “would become unwell, severely short of breath, have terrible weight loss, basically, be unable to move and operate and exercise themselves,” according to Martin Cherniack, a University of Connecticut professor who wrote a 1986 book about the tunnel.
Later, company doctors began misdiagnosing worker deaths or blaming them on an illness known as “tunnelitis.” According to an NPR article, the business would then use those death certificates to refute silicosis deaths at the tunnel.
At the time, silicosis was thought to be a slow-moving disease, but the tunnel workers developed acute silicosis “caused by massive overexposure to freshly fractured, high-silica dust,” according to Dr. Helen Lang, an associate professor of Geology at West Virginia University, as quoted by EHS Today. Three-quarters of the African-American laborers were assigned to the “dirtiest and bloodiest work.”
Apart from being paid less than their White counterparts, African-American workers were not permitted to take as many breaks as they would want in clean air. Supervisors would push them to return to work if they became ill.
They were also not provided with masks or respirators. Many people who were ill after being exposed to silica were unable to return home. Those who perished at the tunnel were buried in unmarked graves or in a nearby slave cemetery, despite Jim Crow rules. Those who did not die in their beds in the company’s worker camps were ejected from town. Their lungs were harmed, and they died subsequently in neighboring places.
On the family farm of local undertaker Hadley White in Summersville, W. Va., dozens more African-American workers were also buried in a mass grave. The property was dug in the 1970s to make space for a new road. The bodies of the laborers were reburied at Whippoorwill by authorities. According to NPR, local newspaper editor Charlotte Yeager recently repaired the cemetery, which had been let to deteriorate.
The number of people killed in the tunnel accident is unknown. Although the official death toll was estimated to be around 300, historians believe it was closer to 700. The United States House of Representatives Committee on Labor convened a hearing on the accident years after the tunnel workers died.
According to the commission, the tunnel was built with “grave and cruel disdain for all consideration for the employees’ health, lives, and future.”
After the investigation, officials stated that silicosis was not an unknown disease, adding that it was “well known to the medical profession and all adequately certified engineers.” Despite this, no action was taken against the tunnel businesses. In dusty working conditions, Congress did approve a law requiring the wearing of respirators.
Several legal processes, including over 300 lawsuits, emerged from the accident. Families were offered death benefits by Union Carbide. “The total amount of damages represented just over one percent of the project cost,” Crandall and Crandall stated.
The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is largely forgotten now, despite the fact that novels and documentaries have been written about it.
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