Hawks Nest Incident

Hawks Nest State Park In The New River Gorge Was The Scene Of One Of The Worst Industrial Disasters In American History

The Hawks Nest Incident has always been considered as one of the worst industrial disasters in American history. That it should happen in such a beautiful rural area perhaps makes it that much worse.

It came about because a company, Union Carbide, wanted to generate electricity for a plant downstream of where the Hawks Nest State Park now stands.

In 1927 they came up with the plan to harness the power of the water from the New River by diverting it through a three mile long tunnel under the Gauley Mountain. The surge of water through the tunnel would generate the electricity before the water then rejoined the natural course of the river close to the Gauley Bridge.

To carry out this plan they built the Hawks Nest Dam across the
New River Gorge and then began to construct the tunnel under the mountain to carry the diverted river.

The contractors were a company called Rhinehart and Dennis. The workers they took on for this project were nearly all migrant African Americans who were desperately seeking any sort of work in those Depression years.

Because drilling the tunnel wasn`t strictly a mining operation the contractors chose to ignore the normal safety regulations.

The men toiled in confined spaces with little ventilation and no breathing equipment. However, whenever the management officials visited the site they all wore such equipment!

The tunnel was being drilled through sandstone rock rich with silica deposits. As they drilled a very fine dust was produced which the men unknowingly ingested as they breathed.

They soon began to fall very ill. What they were suffering from was silicosis, which is an accumulation of the fine silica dust particles in their lungs. It is thought that the contractors knew what was causing the widespread sickness but just elected to carry on working. The men that fell ill were quickly replaced with new workers just desperate to earn a wage.

The men that were ill generally left the area to return to their homes. Many died from the silicosis, some not even surviving a year!

Because no workers records were kept the tradgedy of the Hawks Nest Incident is that no one really knows the numbers of those who were afflicted.

An historical marker on the site only records only 109 deaths. However, a Congressional hearing which took place later placed the death toll at 476.

Over 3,000 workers were involved in the tunneling operation, so sources that calculate that as many as 1,000 could have suffered and died may not be a wild estimate.

The companies involved in the construction never paid any compensation or acknowledged any responsibility.

The tunnel is still in operation to this day but the Hawks Nest Incident will always remain a black mark against the way American Industry used to treat its employees.

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