Isabel Abrams
Oct 18, 2019 · 9 min read

The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster: An American Tragedy


Image courtesy npr.org

To place ourselves in time, we go back to The Great Depression. Many people were out of jobs, and desperation was rampant in the country. Over 5,000 men moved to West Virginia, seeking employment at the Gauley Mountain where Union Carbide Company and Carbon Corporation were working to complete a project called The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel (Goodwyn, 2006). The goal of this project was to redirect water from the New River to Alloy, Union Carbide’s metal plant, to produce electricity. The majority of these men were African Americans who migrated from the South leaving what they believed to be harsher conditions of racist South of America (National Park Service, 2018).

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The tunnel was completed in June 1936 after 18 months of work (Lancianese, 2019). The tunnel, estimated to be about three miles long, with a depth of 163 feet, passed through pure silica (Keenan,2008). Because the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was known as a civil engineering project and not a mining project, safety precautions were not required to be followed . Workers were exposed to harsh working conditions, all in an effort to save money and time. They did not have personal protective equipment and were confined in spaces with poor ventilation (National Park Services, 2018). On average, workers worked 10–15-hour shifts earning twenty-five cents an hour. Due to the extensive exposure to silica dust, workers’ health deteriorated, and many died (Smith,2014).

As is often the case with workers working for large, money-interested corporations, workers were unaware of the health implications of exposure to silica dust. Doctors who worked for Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation lied to the workers and told them they had pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases. However, with so many sick and dying, word leaked out. On May 20, 1931, The Fayette Tribune broke the story about the sick and dying tunnel workers and inhumane and unsafe working conditions, but a gag order was issued by a judge to stop publication (Lewis,2009).

During the construction of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, approximately 760 individuals died from exposure to silica inhalation due to improper precautions. The tunnel environment lacked adequate ventilation and surveillance of air quality. Workers emerged daily from the tunnels covered in white dust. (Lancianese, 2019)

Three quarters of the workers were African American. They faced harsh working conditions, often tougher than their white counterparts. Consequently, their deaths were often attributed to the false connotation that they were more susceptible to lung disease. Illness among the workers was attributed to a fictional disease named “tunnelitis”. On average 10-14 individuals died a day and about 80% of workers either “became ill, died, or walked off the job after six months”. The project was halted prematurely as a result of the health consequences. (Stalnaker, 2006) (Smith, 2014)

According to the Congressional hearing in 1936, there were 476 deaths attributed to the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Project. (Keenan, 2008) However, other sources have recorded deaths to be as high as 2,000. (Likens, 2018) The deaths included workers who had minimal exposure to silica and were affected by it later in life.(Lewis, 2009)

Out of the 500 lawsuits filed, only two lawsuits highlighted Union Carbide’s involvement. Out of court settlements ranged from $30 to $1,600 per individual. White workers were paid higher settlements than Black workers (Lewis,2009).

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Finally, in 1936, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins issued a war on silicosis by organizing national conferences and creating a film titled “Stop Silicosis.” Years later, OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration) and MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) regulated silica dust exposure. This preventable occupational disease continues to claim lives. Approximately 250 American workers continue to die annually while numerous others are left disabled.

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The lack of advocacy for victims of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy is an excellent illustration of how structural and social determinants of a society influence health outcomes. The socioeconomic and political context of the 1930's Depression era was dire for certain members of society. There was no governance nor social or public policies to protect workers from dangerous working conditions.

Furthermore, the prevailing culture and societal values at the time were not concerned with the rights of blacks or the poor. Because all of the workers were poor and two-thirds were black (Dotson-Lewis, 2009), their socioeconomic position put them in an occupation that was dangerous to their health. Although it was known that the conditions in the tunnel were dangerous, the information was ignored, and the silicosis was even diagnosed as a new disease called ‘tunnelitis.’ (Dotson-Lewis, 2009)

The social and structural environment even influenced the victims’ outcomes after death — the black workers were buried in a field on a local farm because there were no appropriate “colored” burial sites. (Dotson-Lewis, 2009).

Today, Silicosis has been designated as an occupational disease with compensation for workers. However, tunnel workers at Hawk’s Nest were not protected by the laws established by OSHA and MSHA. We remember the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel as an industrial tragedy that took the lives of many.

Today, the tunnel continues to do what it was built to do, divert water from the New River to produce hydroelectricity for the Alloy plant. However, what of the hundreds (if not thousands) of nameless and faceless men who died? On an unassuming roadside on Highway 19 in West Virginia, you can see a small memorial that was created to remember and honor the many workers who lost their lives from the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel.

Image courtesy of tunneltalk.com

Our Past, Present, & Future: Health Implications of Silica in the Workplace

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First things first: what is silica? Silica, or silicon dioxide (SiO2), is the Earth’s most abundant mineral and is a component of rock, sand, and quartz. (American Lung Association, 2019) (Stalnaker, 2006) It is commonly found in the earth’s crust and is commonly found in two types: crystalline and its less toxic counterpart, non-crystalline (take a guess at what kind of silica was found at the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel). (Stalnaker, 2006) Silica is often used in the manufacturing of brick, ceramic, glass, etc. (see table below). (United States Department of Labor) Occupations that use these materials pose an increased risk to excess silica exposure. Common occupations exposed to silica today include: construction workers, miners, and glass manufacturers. (American Lung Association, 2019)

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So, what is silicosis? Silicosis is caused by scarring and stiffening of the lungs, which is the reason that suffering individuals experience difficulty breathing. Crystalline silica particles make microscopic cuts in the linings of the lungs, which scar over time. Over-exposure to these particles causes a buildup of scars in the lungs and leads to the lungs stiffening. (American Lung Association, 2019)

There are three ways silicosis can manifest in the human body. The first, and least severe is acute silicosis. Individuals suffering from this type of silicosis have been exposed a few weeks or a few years following silica exposure. The second is called chronic silicosis. Chronic silicosis results from extensive lung scarring and manifests 10 to 30 years following over-exposure to silica. Its symptoms are the most severe; chest pain and shortness of breath often result mainly due to low blood oxygen levels and extensive scarring. The third and final way is known as Accelerated Silicosis. This is the most aggressive form of silicosis and can develop within ten years of over-exposure. Its manifestation is similar to chronic silicosis, but the swelling and scarring of the lungs occur much faster. (American Lung Association, 2019) (Nosilicadust, 2019)

Symptoms of silicosis include:

  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • increased mucus production
  • non-productive cough
  • leg swelling
  • increased breathing rate
  • bluish discoloration of lips
  • loss of appetite
  • fever
  • respiratory failure
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While there is no cure for silicosis, treatment is dependent on the severity of the disease. Inhaled steroids are used for alleviating sputum production and a bronchodilator aids in relaxing the airways. Individuals with more severe cases often require oxygen and breathing support. A lung transplant may even be a necessity. (American Lung Association, 2019)

Protection from silica exposure did not exist during the time of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel construction. First silica exposure standards were created in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the acceptable limit of silica dust exposure, as allotted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), is 25 micrometers/m³ for an eight hour period which is significantly lower than the standard set in 1971 of 250mm/m³ for an eight hour period. (Stalnaker, 2006) (Normohammadi, Kakooei, Omidi, Yari, & Alimi, 2006) (Pulse-Bac Vacuum Systems, 2016)

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Since silicosis has no cure and damage is irreparable, prevention is essential. Recommendations for workers include following proper personal protective equipment (PPE) use, most importantly respirators. Use the “wet method” when sawing, drilling, and other similar activities since these activities create the fine crystalline silica particles. We recommend that workers refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking near silica dust and we recommend that they utilize worksite showers to limit possible secondhand exposure to others. To learn more about how to protect yourself at work please visit http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg463.htm. (American Lung Association, 2019) (Health and Safety Executive)


We, as Americans, have always prided ourselves in our industriousness and innovation. However, there comes a time when we as a society have to decide what it is we value. The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Disaster is in our past now, but have we really changed that much since then? As we said above, workers are still exposed to silica every day, and the damage down the line is something we can only speculate about. Is innovation worth the price of human lives? This is the kind of question we have to ask ourselves as we work to build a world that future generations will live and work in.


Works Cited

American Lung Association. (2019). Silicosis. Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/silicosis/.

Compliance assistance — walsh-healey public contracts act (PCA)  Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/whd/govcontracts/pca.htm

Dotson-Lewis, B. (2009). Hawk’s nest tunnel tragedy. Retrieved from https://www.tunneltalk.com/Hawks-Nest-Tunnel-tragedy-Sept09.php

Esswein, E. J., Breitenstein, M., Snawder, J., Kiefer, M., & Sieber, W. K. (2013). Occupational exposures to respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 10(7), 347–356. doi:10.1080/15459624.2013.788352

Goodwyn, W. (2006). Silicosis: From public menace to litigation target  Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5247882

Hawk’s nest tunnel tragedy 1930s; (1979). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUL6nnJO-6Q

Health and Safety Executive. (n.d.). Control of exposure to silica dust. Retrieved from http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg463.htm.

Keenan, S. (2008). Book explores hawks nest tunnel history; Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20080407211242/http://www.fayettetribune.com/local/local_story_093161850.html

Lancianese, A. (2019, January 20). Before Black Lung, The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/01/20/685821214/before-black-lung-the-hawks-nest-tunnel-disaster-killed-hundreds.

Normohammadi, M., Kakooei, H., Omidi, L., Yari, S., & Alimi, R. (2016, September). Risk Assessment of Exposure to Silica Dust in Building Demolition Sites. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5011095/.

Nosilicadust. (2019, July 3). Silica Dust Health Hazards. Retrieved from https://www.nosilicadust.com/silica-dust-health-hazards/.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration. (n.d.). Silicosis. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/Publications/silicosis.html.

Pulse-Bac Vacuum Systems. (2016, June 9). OSHA Silica Dust Standard. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gGlXwRKH7E.

Smith, S. (2014, May 21). The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy: The Forgotten Victims of America’s Worst Industrial Disaster [Photo Gallery]. Retrieved from https://www.ehstoday.com/industrial-hygiene/hawk-s-nest-tunnel-tragedy-forgotten-victims-america-s-worst-industrial-disaster-.

Stalnaker, C. K. (2006). Hawk’s Nest Tunnel: A Forgotten Tragedy in Safety’s History. American Society of Safety Professionals, 27–33. Retrieved from http://www.asse.org

The hawk’s nest tunnel disaster: Summersville, WV  (2018). Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/neri/planyourvisit/the-hawks-nest-tunnel-disaster-summersville-wv.htm

United States Department of Labor. (n.d.). Silica, Crystalline. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/dsg/topics/silicacrystalline/.

Hawk’s nest tunnel tragedy 1930s; (1979). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oUL6nnJO-6Q

Keenan, S. (2008). Book explores hawks nest tunnel history&; Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20080407211242/http://www.fayettetribune.com/local/local_story_093161850.html

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