The Hawk’s Nest Disaster

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

The scattered rain showers that had been called for became more on the line of random downpours as I traveled southward. I had managed to avoid the rain all morning, but the idea of vacation with rain was not appealing. I had just come out of one of the downpours when I noticed a West Virginia historical marker alongside Route 19. I turned onto the small side-road and stopped at the marker taking advantage of the pause between storms. Walking over to the sign the title immediately caught 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.” Note: The historical marker states the bodies were moved to this location in 1971, but most sources state that the bodies were moved here in 1972.

A small sign was attached to the historical marker post that pointed the way to the cemetery. I drove the short distance to the cemetery that was hidden just yards from Route 19. I wondered as I pulled into the small lot for the historical cemetery how many people who traveled Route 19 were even aware of this place?

Stepping out of the vehicle I was immediately taken in by the silence of the area. Though Route 19 was yards away, the only time I could hear any of the vehicles was when a larger truck passed by. The area seemed so peaceful and appropriate for the sacred grounds of that held the deceased workers. Note: The cemetery is also known as the Whippoorwill Cemetery in some sources. This name comes from the road the cemetery is located along.

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

Little did I fully understand at the moment exactly what had happened to these men who were buried here. Who were these men? How bad was the accident? I’ve read about plenty of 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. This 30- to 32-foot wide tunnel diverts waters from the New River for nearly four miles under Gauley Mountain to a hydroelectric plant. The construction of the tunnel was done by the Rinehart and Dennis Company, contractors for the New Kanawha Power Company. In order to build it, the company employed hundreds with the vast majority of them being African Americans.

The rock through which Tunnel No. 1 was being drilled was 97 to 99 percent pure silica. As the men drilled, they were releasing huge amounts of silica dust into the air which made working in the tunnel extremely dangerous. Men would exit the tunnel covered in the dangerous, white dust. The dust was caused by dry drilling and 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. 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 African American workers showed signs of silicosis they were forced out of the camp, left to fend for themselves until they perished.

One hundred and sixty-seven lawsuits would reach the courts 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 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 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 it did after nine burials), the Summersville undertaker began burying the workers on his family farm in unmarked graves.

Here these bodies remained 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 they bodies were moved, only bones remained so there was nothing to identify the bodies being moved. The bodies were placed in child-sized coffins and buried at the current location.

Sadly the cemetery, which many remembering being on the White farm was soon forgotten. Even sadder, 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.

After reading the stone marker at the entrance, I 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 unmarked crosses that identified the graves of the unknown dead. Or maybe it was a combination of these factors.

As I stood there in the entrance to the cemetery, the full reality of what this place meant flooded me. These were just a few of the men and women who died from the Hawk’s Nest Disaster and the exact number of victims is not known. The “official” count is 109 people died of silicosis. However, in 1936 a Congressional investigation determined that 476 people died from silicosis.  Some recent studies suggest that the number dead is closer to 800 people died of silicosis from working in the tunnel. I have seen some reports that place the total death total in the low thousands.

Even worse is the fact where these victims are even buried. In the old Lewis Cemetery, there are nine known victims. There were forty buried on the White Farm (the family farm of the undertaker). There were some buried in the Potter’s Field in Fayetteville. There are some buried on their family’s homesteads. There have been reports of the dead being buried in mass graves close to the place where they fell. And there are those 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.

But the worst part is the whole disaster could have been avoided.  Despite the testimony given in the court cases, it was revealed that dry drilling was used in the creation of the tunnel and had created large amounts of dust. If the company would have allowed the men to use wet drilling, water would have suppressed the amount of dust produced. And, the company could have provided some sort of ventilation to remove the dust. With no ventilation, the dust hung in the tunnel and the workers were forced to constantly breathe it. The company could have provided masks for the workers so they were not directly breathing the dust. The company could have had reasonable work hours, rather than working the men six days a week for ten hour shifts. This would have allowed the workers to get out of the tunnel more often and while it would not have prevented the silicosis, it would have slowed down the disease from coming full-term so quickly.

But the discrimination that ran rampant at the time was displayed in the actions of the company. Testimony given during the Congressional hearing by Phillipa Allen sums up the discrimination and 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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