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SharePrint Media File

Type: Video

Series Title West Virginia: A Film History

Filmmaker Mark Samels

Company West Virginia Humanities Council

Format DVD


Men desperate for work in 1930 were drawn to Hawks Nest, a scenic cliff in the New River Gorge, where Union Carbide Chemicals Corporation began digging a giant tunnel through Gauley Mountain. The tunnel would divert water to the company’s hydroelectric generating station three miles downstream.

Fearing interference by the Federal Power Authority, Union Carbide pressed its contractors to complete the tunnel in record time. Contractors hired 3000 men, a majority African-American, to drill through rock that was almost pure silica. Basic safety precautions, such as wet drilling, were ignored. Fine silica particles filled the air becoming trapped in workers’ lungs and making breathing difficult.

Every morning, in the camp above the tunnel, armed men forced the sick out of bed. Those too weak to work were run out of town by the local sheriff.

Jerry Bruce Thomas: These companies involved in it thought that they could get this job done quickly. They probably didn’t have a lot of regard for the people who were being hurt by it. The result was great numbers of workers came down with silicosis and great numbers of workers died. It was one of the great industrial disasters in this country.

Narrator: Men die, said one worker, in the camps, under rocks and everyplace else. Many bodies were buried in unmarked graves near the tunnel opening.

Congressional hearings failed to assign blame for the deaths and the issue was soon dropped. Few people wanted to discuss the tragedy, said West Virginia Senator Rush Holt, because of the danger of stepping on the toes of some industrialist.

An estimated seven hundred and sixty-four men, including five hundred and eighty-one blacks, died digging the tunnel at Hawks Nest.

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