The Hawk’s Nest Disaster

Monument at the Hawk’s Nest Memorial Cemetery, Summersville, West Virginia

The scattered rain showers the radio had been warning about had become constant downpours as I traveled southward on Route 19. I had just come out of a downpour when I noticed a West Virginia historical marker alongside Route 19. I could see dark clouds ahead, so I turned onto the small side-road and stopped at the marker to take advantage of the pause between storms.

As I walked over to the sign the title immediately captured my attention: “Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Workers Grave Site.” The sign continued to tell of the location where I stood: “While digging Hawks Nest Tunnel / in early 1930s, hundreds of the / mostly black, migrant workforce / contracted acute silicosis from / silica dust and later died. Many / were buried in secret, unmarked / graves to the north. In 1971 the / bodies were reburied nearby. The / tragic event is one of the worst / disasters in American history.”

A small sign was attached to the historical marker post, pointing the way to the cemetery. I drove the short distance up Hilltop Drive to where the road ends. As I parked in the small stop near the historical cemetery, I had to wonder ‘How many people who traveled Route 19 were even aware of this historic, sacred ground only yards from the highway?’

I stepped out of the vehicle and was immediately taken in by the silence of the area. Though Route 19 was roughly one hundred yards away, the only time I could hear a passing vehicle was when a larger truck drove by. The area seemed so peaceful and appropriate for the sacred grounds which held the deceased workers.

A set of stone steps lead to the historic cemetery, which was marked with an iron arch stating: “Hawk’s Nest Workers Memorial Cemetery.” Next to the iron arch was a large boulder on which the story of those resting here is engraved. I paused to read the words explaining this historic location.

I finished reading the stone memorial and studied the sacred piece of land. I have read about many disasters over the years, but I could not recall ever reading about one called the Hawk’s Nest Disaster. I was about to have my eyes opened as the reality of what this sacred piece of ground meant.

Construction on the Hawk Nest Tunnel, which is located roughly twenty miles west of the historic cemetery, began in 1930. The 30- to 32-foot wide tunnel diverts waters from the New River under Gauley Mountain for four miles to a hydroelectric plant. The construction of the tunnel was sourced to the Rinehart and Dennis Company, contractors for the New Kanawha Power Company. In order to build it, the company employed hundreds of men, with the vast majority of them being African-Americans.

The rock through which Tunnel No. 1 was being drilled by the men was 97% to 99% pure silica. As they drilled, the air was filled with silica dust, which made working in the tunnel extremely dangerous. The interior of the tunnel was often described as a white cloud of silica dust and workers could rarely see more than ten feet in front of them. The workers would exit the tunnel covered in the dangerous, white dust.

Within months of starting the job, workers became sick from the silica dust. They showed signs of a lung disease called silicosis, which cannot be cured. While silicosis usually takes years to develop in the lungs, it was fully developed in the lungs of the workers in a matter of months. Once the workers showed signs of silicosis they were forced out of the camp, left to fend for themselves, until they perished.

While the poor white workers had a place to be buried, the African- American workers were not permitted to be buried in “white” cemeteries due to the discriminatory laws and rules of the time. If there was no family nearby to collect the body, it was buried in the old Lewis Cemetery, which had once been the local slave cemetery. When the space in this cemetery ran out – and after nine burials the cemetery was full – the Summersville undertaker began burying the workers on his family farm in unmarked graves.

Here these bodies remained forgotten for almost forty years. When Route 19 was widened in the early 1970s, the bodies were exhumed and moved to the present location, where they were reburied. Sadly, when the badly decomposed the bodies were moved, there was nothing to identify the deceased. The remains were placed in child-sized coffins and buried at the current location.

This burial location was soon forgotten and the area became a dumping ground for trash and unwanted appliances. It was not until 2009 when the county historical society began to restore the sacred grounds and on September 7, 2012 the grounds were consecrated and dedicated to those workers who died in the Hawk’s Nest Disaster.

I took a deep breath and hesitantly stepped into the grounds. I’ve walked through many cemeteries in my life, but here I felt like I was intruding. Maybe it was due to the cemetery being hidden beneath a canvas of trees. Maybe it was from the water dripping from the leaves. Maybe it was from the crosses that identified the graves of the unknown dead. Or maybe it was a combination of these factors.

As I walked among the crosses, the full reality of what this place meant flooded me. These were just a portion of the men who died from the Hawk’s Nest Disaster. The exact number of victims is not known, but the “official” count is 109 people died of silicosis. However, in 1936 a Congressional investigation determined that 476 people died from silicosis due to the drilling. Some recent studies suggest the number dead may be closer to 800 people and a handful of reports state that the death total may be around 1000 workers.

The death total is hampered by the lack of records of where the African-American victims were buried. In the old Lewis Cemetery, there are nine known victims. There were 48 workers buried on the White Farm, which was the family farm of the Summersville undertaker. There a number of burials in the Potter’s Field at Fayetteville. There were those workers who were driven away from the camp once it was discovered they were sick and may have died alone in the mountains of West Virginia.

Some of the deaths would result in lawsuits – 167 lawsuits would reach the court system and the companies building the tunnel would settle for a mere fraction of what a life was valued. Over four million dollars in lawsuits were settled for a mere $130,000 – over half of this total went to the attorneys who agreed not to sue the companies again. The final value placed on the lives of those affected were: unmarried African-Americans received $400 opposed to white workers receiving $800 and married whites received $1000 whereas married African Americans only received $600.

The worst part of the Hawk’s Nest Disaster was the whole disaster could have been avoided. Despite the testimony given in the court cases, it was revealed that dry drilling was used in drilling the tunnel, which had created a large amount of dust. If the company would have allowed the men to use wet drilling, the water would have suppressed the amount of dust produced. If the company would have provided some sort of ventilation to remove the dust, it would have moved it out of the tunnel and the workers would not have been forced to constantly breathe it. If the company would have provided masks for the workers so they were not directly breathing the dust. If the company would have had reasonable work hours to allow the workers to breath fresh air rather than working the men six days a week for ten-hour shifts in the dust-filled tunnels. While these steps may not have prevented silicosis, the steps would have slowed down the disease from coming full-term so quickly.

Testimony given during the Congressional hearing by Phillipa Allen sums up the lack of concern by the company: “Rinehart & Dennis, not only robbed its workers by a ridiculously low wage scale, but purposely doomed them to die when they neglected to furnish men respirators (masks) which would have kept them from inhaling the deadly silica dust in the tunnel headings…. Why do you think the contractors from Charlottesville, Va., dared not furnish their workers with safeguards of masks and wet drills? Because they thought they would finish the job and be out of the state before the men began to die. Silicosis usually takes from 10 to 20 years to develop in one’s lungs.”

I finally stepped away from the entrance to the cemetery and walked slowly back to the vehicle, leaving the sacred piece of ground to the silence of the hollow.

If you choose to visit, please do so respectfully, giving this place the honor it deserves.

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