Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The construction of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel to supply water to a hydroelectric complex led to the nation’s deadliest industrial accident, in which hundreds of workers died from acute silicosis.

Summary of Event

On March 31, 1930, ground was broken for the three-mile-long Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. The tunnel was planned to divert water from the New River to a dam and hydroelectric plant that would supply electricity to the metallurgical works at Glen Ferris, West Virginia. From the first, the project was clouded by a disregard for the law and for human safety. [kw]Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster (Mar. 31, 1930-1931)[Hawks Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster (Mar. 31, 1930 1931)] [kw]Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster, Hawk’s Nest (Mar. 31, 1930-1931) [kw]Construction Leads to Disaster, Hawk’s Nest Tunnel (Mar. 31, 1930-1931) [kw]Disaster, Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to (Mar. 31, 1930-1931) Hawk’s Nest Tunnel[Hawks Nest Tunnel] Disasters;Hawk’s Nest Tunnel[Hawks Nest Tunnel] Industrial accidents Silicosis Diseases;silicosis [g]United States;Mar. 31, 1930-1931: Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster[07570] [c]Health and medicine;Mar. 31, 1930-1931: Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster[07570] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 31, 1930-1931: Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster[07570] [c]Business and labor;Mar. 31, 1930-1931: Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Construction Leads to Disaster[07570] Jones, O. M. Lambie, Robert M. Jones, Cora Harless, Leroy

The tunnel was constructed through a mountain formed of sandstone and silica rock; the silica mined from the mountain was said to be more than 90 percent pure. During the drilling, blasting, and cleaning of rock debris out of the tunnel, safety precautions were not followed, and many men were stricken with acute silicosis, the filling up and scarring of the lungs with silica dust nodes. The companies involved covered up the facts of the industrial disaster. The passivity of the federal government and the negligence of the companies involved in the construction of the tunnel resulted in the slow and painful deaths of several hundred workers.

The exploitation of hydroelectric resources in the Gauley Bridge area dates back to 1899, when the Wilson Aluminum Company had received permission from the secretary of war to construct a temporary timber dam at Kanawha Falls, just downstream from Gauley Bridge. By 1901, the company had completed the dam, which exploited the eight-foot natural falls to drive the first hydroelectric plant in the state. Six years later, the Electro-Metallurgical Company absorbed Wilson Aluminum and expanded the temporary dam without seeking the necessary permission. Early operations were only moderately successful, as local industrial markets were limited. In 1917, the Electro-Metallurgical Company merged with other companies to form the Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation (commonly known as Union Carbide).

One of the first acts of this corporation was to increase the size of the dam at Kanawha Falls again. This plan met resistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which in 1913 told Congress that the enlarged dam would block navigation on the New River. As early as 1812, inland rivers were seen as transportation routes, and control of them, including the New River, therefore belonged to the federal government.

Union Carbide found a way to circumvent this problem: Company officials simply did not inform the Corps of Engineers about construction that was under way. One year later, two hundred feet of concrete on the dam and a new powerhouse had been constructed at Glen Ferris. Later, Union Carbide informed the corps of the improvements and asked for an extension of the dam permits. Although permission was denied, no action was taken to remove the structures, and Union Carbide’s exploitation of waterpower on the New River did not end.

A new metallurgical works was proposed five miles below Glen Ferris, at Boncar. It was to be larger than the one at Kanawha Falls and would require greater resources of power. The New Kanawha Power Company was chartered in 1927 with the purpose of constructing public utilities in West Virginia. New Kanawha Power was formed by Union Carbide as a dummy company, set up to develop and produce power for general public sales and commercial use. During the company’s brief history, it had only one customer, Union Carbide.

Later in 1927, the New Kanawha Power Company filed a declaration of intent to develop the New River with two dams, two tunnels, and two power stations in addition to the complex at Boncar. The site chosen for one of the tunnels and dams was at Hawk’s Nest. Upstream, the New River was more than one thousand feet wide, but it narrowed to less than one hundred feet wide as it began its descent to Gauley Bridge. A three-mile-long tunnel with a 162-foot descent would divert the New River through the mountain and create a rapid river flow. The State Public Service Commission gave its approval to the project in 1928.

Effects on river navigation were questioned by a local coal company, but such concerns were not brought to the attention of the Corps of Engineers. The State Public Service Commission dismissed the complaint. Even though Union Carbide openly admitted that New Kanawha Power was a wholly owned subsidiary and that the power it produced was meant solely for use by Union Carbide, permission was granted. The need for a water-driven power supply increased in 1929 with the collapse of the U.S. economy in the Great Depression: Many West Virginia coal mines closed, and coal production dropped as a result. A new, cheap energy source was needed. Electric power, dubbed “white coal” by some, was a potential replacement for coal-based power; indeed, it would become the focus of many of the New Deal’s public works projects.

Union Carbide’s project went forward. The Rinehart and Dennis Company Rinehart and Dennis Company of Charlottesville, Virginia, a company well known for its experience in building dams and other waterworks projects, was the low bidder on the tunnel construction contract, which it was awarded on March 13, 1930. Eighteen days later, ground was broken for the tunnel. The tunnel was bored from different directions: There was a main intake where the New River would enter the tunnel and a tunnel exit where the water would enter the river again. There was also an adit to the surge basin within the tunnel, for an excess or overflow of water to enter. Drilling commenced at all these openings.

From the beginning, the Rinehart and Dennis Company used questionable practices. Many local white people who were laid off from the mines were hired, but African American migrant workers from the South were encouraged to travel north to work inside the tunnel. White workers were given better—and often safer—jobs, whereas black workers were usually hired as common laborers at the face of the tunnel. The African American workers were paid lower wages than the white workers, and their company-provided living quarters were inadequate, with as many as ten or twelve people sharing one four-room shack. White workers were paid in cash, but black workers were paid in company scrip, with deductions taken out for coal, linens, food, and other essentials that they could purchase only at the company stores.

The African American workers were expected to do the most grueling jobs. The foreman and assistant foreman positions were held by white workers, and much of the work outside the tunnel was performed by white employees. A few of the white workers worked inside the tunnel, but only a few worked the face of the tunnel. When drilling or blasting, the workers were not provided with respirators or masks to shield their faces from the silica dust. The laborers were not supposed to be in the mine while the blasting occurred, but the foremen would allow the workers to retreat only a few feet from the blasting site and would direct them to start clearing the debris as soon as the blasting was completed.

These practices were unorthodox and unnecessarily dangerous even by the standards of the time, especially by international standards. Wet drilling, a process in which fluids are used to help control airborne debris, was introduced in England in 1897. Dry drilling had been strictly forbidden by 1911 in many European, South American, and African countries. In the United States, silicosis and its causes were widely known before 1930. The U.S. Public Health Service had published an official bulletin in 1917 describing silicosis studies performed on zinc miners in Joplin, Missouri. In 1915, the first workers’ compensation laws provided implicit regulations regarding silicosis. Nevertheless, many Hawk’s Nest tunnellers used dry drills, raising clouds of dangerous silica dust.

In the United States, the control of occupational diseases Occupational diseases had proceeded more slowly than it had in Western Europe. The delay was a result of limited enforcement rather than a failure to recognize occupational diseases. Federal agencies were restricted in their involvement in occupational disease control, and state regulations were relatively toothless. Inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Mines, which was run by Robert M. Lambie, wrote citations for the infractions they witnessed. The Rinehart and Dennis Company simply ignored the citations and continued business as usual. It posted lookouts to warn of the arrival of inspectors and stopped work or detained the inspectors while conditions were improved in the tunnel.

Men working in the tunnel complained that they could see only a few feet in front of them, and they collided with parked machinery in the thick dust. Instead of drilling with water to suppress the dust, they were required to drill dry because it was faster. Sixteen drills were operating at one time, and fewer than half of them used water to hold down the dust. Normally, battery-powered locomotives would run cars to the face of a tunnel to remove blasted rock and silica. The Rinehart and Dennis Company, however, brought gasoline-powered machinery to the tunnel site, and the gasoline engines caused a carbon monoxide buildup. Workers who complained that they could not breathe or who became sick or sleepy from the dust and fumes were beaten and run off the job. If they could not work, they could not stay in company housing. Many workers were carried from the tunnel and left to die. Many men lasted a maximum of two months, and only 2 percent worked from the beginning of the project to its completion. When a worker could no longer work, he was fired.

There are many reasons that the events at Hawk’s Nest Tunnel were allowed to continue, and legislation was created at the state and federal levels as a result of lawsuits and investigations that followed. The fact that the disaster happened in a rural setting helped to conceal it. The disease that killed so many workers was not well understood at the time. Silicosis was believed to be a disease that took from twenty to thirty years to kill its victim. The men in the tunnel, however, breathed pure silica in great quantities, so their deaths were comparatively fast and painful; many died in a matter of months from acute silicosis. Many doctors labeled the cause of death “tunnel pneumonia” or “tunnelitis.” They knew it was a lung disease, but they were unaware, for the most part, of its true nature. Only after Dr. Leroy Harless did autopsies on several victims did he realize that the scarring in the lungs was killing their laborers.

Construction on the tunnel was completed in 1931. Cora Jones filed suit in circuit court in 1932 against the Rinehart and Dennis Company after her three sons, all between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, died as a result of their work on the tunnel; her husband was also stricken. Harless saved the fibrous lungs of Jones’s youngest son as evidence of what happened to workers who were subjected to pure silica dust. Compensation was awarded after the company was found to be at fault.


The companies running the Hawk’s Nest project acknowledged 109 deaths of workers on the tunnel, but the actual total was much higher. A congressional investigation determined that 476 people died; in his 1986 book The Hawk’s Nest Incident, Martin Cherniack set the figure at 764 deaths and estimated that 1,500 surviving workers suffered from silicosis. It was difficult to keep track of the deaths because many men had been buried in unmarked graves, different causes of death had been recorded, and many migrant workers had left the area, making it virtually impossible to account for their fates.

The U.S. House of Representatives conducted an investigation into the conditions of workers employed in the construction of public utilities in January and February of 1936. Many people associated with the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel were called to testify before the committee about events that took place during construction of the tunnel. Several positive steps were taken as a result of the hearings.

The authority of the Bureau of Mines Bureau of Mines, U.S. was expanded to give the agency jurisdiction over a broad range of underground work. The Bureau of Mines was not believed to have authority at Hawk’s Nest because the tunnel was a construction project, not a mine. The Bureau of Mines also expanded its dust investigation practices; dust sampling was expanded to include analysis of the composition, particle size, and concentration of airborne dusts. Surveys were conducted to determine the exposure of industrial workers to various dust conditions and the effect of such conditions on the workers. New methods of dust control were developed, and studies in removing dust from work areas were conducted. Other cooperative ventures with the Public Health Service Public Health Service, U.S. involving dust and its effect on workers were launched.

In the decades following the Hawk’s Nest incident, many state and federal agencies were created to ensure that workers in the United States would not be subjected to the kind of work environment that existed at Gauley Bridge between 1930 and 1931. Agencies at both the state and federal levels would check and recheck working conditions above and below ground to ensure provision of safe workplaces for all ranks of workers. Although hundreds of people died as a consequence of their work on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, their deaths helped prompt the creation of a bureaucracy that has protected generations of laborers. Hawk’s Nest Tunnel[Hawks Nest Tunnel] Disasters;Hawk’s Nest Tunnel[Hawks Nest Tunnel] Industrial accidents Silicosis Diseases;silicosis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cherniack, Martin. The Hawk’s Nest Incident. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. An investigation into the cover-up of working conditions at Hawk’s Nest. Cherniack asserts that the death toll from the project was substantially higher than earlier estimates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comstock, Jim. “476 Graves: The Story of Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.” In West Virginia Heritage. Vol. 7. Richwood: West Virginia Heritage Foundation, 1972. Provides a transcript of the House of Representatives hearings regarding the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fishback, Price V. “Workplace Safety During the Progressive Era: Fatal Accidents in Bituminous Coal Mining, 1912-1923.” Explorations in Economic History 23, no. 3 (1986): 269-298. A look at the mining industry’s safety record in the period leading up to the Hawk’s Nest disaster. Useful historical perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Serrin, William. “The Wages of Work.” The Nation 252, no. 3 (January 28, 1991): 80-82. A jarring look at contemporary worker safety. Serrin reports that, despite regulatory and other improvements, about three hundred Americans die every day from work-related injuries or diseases. He views the scant attention paid such incidents as a consequence of class bias.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skidmore, Hubert. Hawk’s Nest: A Novel. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004. Fictionalized account of the tragedy based on detailed research and including bibliographic references to nonfiction sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace, Michael. “Dying for Coal: The Struggle for Health and Safety Conditions in American Coal Mining, 1930-82.” Social Forces 66, no. 2 (1987): 336-364. Suggests that labor activism and market factors have had more to do with safety improvements than have government regulations. Somewhat technical.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, John Alexander. West Virginia: A History. 2d ed. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2001. Includes a chapter on the Hawk’s Next incident and its effects on West Virginia and the United States. Bibliographic references and index.

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