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Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster


Drilled through three miles of solid rock, the Hawks Nest Tunnel is a major hydroelectric water diversion tunnel and an engineering marvel. Largely constructed between 1930 and 1932, the project engaged almost 5,000 workers, consisting of local men and a majority of migrant workers, most of them southern Blacks. The tunnel was part of a complex to generate power for Union Carbide’s electro-metallurgical plant in nearby Alloy. It was the largest construction project that had been licensed to that time in West Virginia, and it became the site of one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of the United States.

In all, 2,982 men worked underground drilling and blasting. Only 40 percent of the underground work force worked more than two months and only 20 percent more than six months. Silicosis afflicted an astonishingly high proportion of this short-tenured work force. Silicosis, a progressive fibrosis of the lungs caused by inhaling pulverized silica dioxide, was a recognized hazard in hard rock mining and in granite sheds. Because the Hawks Nest Tunnel was licensed as a civil engineering project, even the modest forms of safety enforcement then available to miners did not apply. The combination of large work crews drilling and blasting in underground confined spaces, poor ventilation, lack of dust control and of personal breathing protection, and seams of exceptionally pure silica combined to create a man-made disaster. In less than two years after groundbreaking in April 1930, young men succumbed to acute silicosis. Hundreds would eventually die.

The circumstances cannot be considered accidental. Prior to groundbreaking, core samples made it clear that most of the tunnel would be drilled through high grade silica-bearing sandstone. Ultimately, a third of the tunnel was enlarged for the purpose of silica extraction.

Two great trials were held in 1933 and 1934 in Fayetteville and in Charleston to litigate claims against the contractor, Rinehart and Dennis of Charlottesville, Virginia, and the New Kanawha Power Company, a corporate entity created by Union Carbide. There would be 538 lawsuits filed against the two companies. In the end, the out-of-court settlement was modest—$200,000—with individual awards ranging from $30 to $1,600. The largest trial ended with a hung jury, evidence of jury tampering, and generous compensation to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

The death toll cannot be stated with certainty. Hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936 attributed 476 deaths to work on the tunnel. A study published in 1986 by the epidemiologist Martin Cherniack estimates that as many as 764 men may have died from acute silicosis and related conditions, while a 2002 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health estimated close to 1,000 men died. The Hawks Nest Tunnel became an important part of the labor culture of the 1930s, generating a novel and several short stories, as well as songs and an important cycle of poems by the activist poet Muriel Rukeyser. National news stories were published for several weeks when the extent of the tragedy came to public light. For many Americans outside the state, a January 25, 1936, Newsweek article was the first time they heard of the tunnel deaths taking place years before.

While an industrial disaster and human tragedy, the Hawks Nest project was an engineering success. The tunnel continues to operate and provide power to the current owner of the Alloy plant.


e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster

Written by Martin G. Cherniack


  1. Cherniack, Martin. The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

  2. Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 7. Richwood: Jim Comstock, 1976.

  3. Comstock, Jim, ed. West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia vol. 4. Jim Comstock, 1970, Reprint.

  4. U.S. Congress. House. Committee on Labor. An Investigation Relating to Health Conditions of Workers Employed in the Construction and Maintenance of Public Utilities. Hearings on House Joint Resolution 449. 74th Congress, second session. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1936.