The Hawks Nest Dam holds back the New River, channeling its flow through a tunnel stretching 3.5 miles beneath Gauley Mountain. The water then reconnects with the river close to Gauley Bridge, serving as a resource for the hydroelectric power plant. The construction of the tunnel is considered the worst industrial disaster in the state's history due to a large number of fatalities caused by silicosis.
During the Great Depression, drawn by a promise of steady income and employment, approximately 3,000 men, two-thirds Black, migrated from southern states to West Virginia to excavate the tunnel.
The work involved grueling 10- to 15-hour shifts where they used drills and dynamite to extract sandstone primarily composed of cemented quartz (silica) sand. Due to the dry drilling methods, the workers were exposed to high levels of silica dust. Still, they were not provided with masks or specialized breathing apparatus for protection during mining operations.
This prolonged exposure to silica dust led to many workers contracting silicosis, a severe lung disease. Approximately 60 workers from Hawks Nest became incapacitated after just two months of working underground, and 80 more became disabled after six months on the job. The majority of these workers died from the silicosis, some in as little as a year. This unfortunate event led to the formal acknowledgment of acute silicosis as an occupational lung disease, paving the way for compensation for affected workers.
The construction company responsible for the tunnel's drilling soon found themselves embroiled in legal battles. The firm's president dismissed these lawsuits as shakedowns. Eventually, the company settled 300 out-of-court cases for $170,000 - a fraction of the originally demanded $4 million in damages - and contributed an additional $166,000 to a state compensation fund. However, 200 other lawsuits were dismissed by the state supreme court due to late filing. The company reported that only 109 fatalities resulted from silica exposure during construction; however, this figure was contradicted by a Congressional hearing, which estimated the death toll at 476. Other estimates suggest an even higher number of casualties - between 700 and over 1,000. Determining an exact count has proven challenging due to many workers being transient and either returning home or leaving the area after falling ill.
Copyright 2023 Susan Rissi Tregoning
November 7th, 2023
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