Before Black Lung, The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds

Jan 20, 2019
Originally published on January 20, 2019 8:26 pm

Southern West Virginia is a playground for hikers, cyclists and rock climbers, but in the heart of that lush landscape rests the site of what many consider the worst industrial disaster in American history.

Today, from a picturesque overlook on the mountain above, tourists can see the gate of the Hawks Nest Tunnel, located on the New River in Gauley Bridge. There, water rushes through 16,240 feet of steel and rock.

But almost 90 years ago, thick clouds of dust blurred the eyes and choked the lungs of workers inside the tunnel. The project attracted thousands of men, hoping to find work during the Great Depression. Three-fourths were African-Americans fleeing the South.

"To these men, going to West Virginia was like going to heaven — a new land, a new promised land — and when they got here, they found that they had ended up in a hellhole," says Matthew Watts, a minister and amateur historian in Charleston, W.Va.

Hundreds of workers would die after working in the tunnel from exposure to toxic silica dust, a mineral that slices the lung like shards of glass.

As NPR has reported, that same deadly dust has caused a resurgence of severe black lung disease among coal miners in Appalachia. Miners today are sickened younger and entering advanced stages of the disease more quickly. What's more, federal regulators could have prevented it.

But before the modern epidemic plaguing coal miners, there was the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, a long-forgotten example of the occupational dangers of silica dust — and the government's response to death on its doorstep.

"The town of the living dead"

The Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. began constructing the 3-mile tunnel in the spring of 1930. The company wanted to divert water from the New River to a plant downstream to generate power for iron smelting.

Nearly 3,000 workers labored in shifts of 10 or 15 hours. The tunnel, projected to be completed in four years, wrapped in 18 months. Workers drilled holes and then stacked dynamite to blast through sandstone.

An African-American man poses with others in the photo above while working on the Hawks Nest Tunnel in 1932. Thousands of black men came to West Virginia to work on the project, making up the vast majority of the workforce.
Courtesy of Union Carbide Collection, West Virginia State Archives

Gauley Mountain, where the tunnel was built, was 99 percent pure sandstone, a valuable commodity in 1930. Drilling through sandstone kicks up silica dust. One worker later said the dust was so thick, he could practically chew it.

"There was a nickname at the time for Gauley Bridge: the town of the living dead," says local writer Catherine Venable Moore, "because there were so many sick workers, and also because they had this kind of ghostly presence when they were coming out of the tunnel being covered in this white silica dust."

One of those workers was Dewey Flack, a 17- or 18-year-old African-American man. Flack's age is unclear because — like many other black tunnel workers — only a few traces of his life and death remain.

Most likely, Watts says, Flack left his home in North Carolina with a one-way train ticket to West Virginia and the promise to send money to his parents and five younger siblings. He would never see them again.

"Young, healthy people breaking down"

Soon after construction began, men were already getting sick and dying at the tunnel.

"Each and every day I worked in that tunnel, I helped carry off 10 to 14 men who was overcome by the dust," a Hawks Nest worker recalled in a 1936 newsreel. Photos taken during construction show ghostly images of workers shrouded in clouds of white dust.

According to Union Carbide documents, 80 percent of the workers became ill, died or walked off the job after six months.

A drilling crew poses for the above photo in 1931. To create the Hawks Nest Tunnel, workers had to drill through nearly pure sandstone, which kicks up toxic silica dust. Workers in the photo are not wearing respirators — a requirement later mandated by Congress after hundreds of men died from exposure to silica in the tunnel.
Courtesy of Elkem Metals Collection, West Virginia State Archives

"The local doctors really were not quite clear at first what they were seeing. We had young, healthy people breaking down in a very short period of time and there really isn't a lot of precedent for that," says Martin Cherniack, a University of Connecticut professor who wrote a 1986 book about the tunnel.

The count of how many workers died varies. According to congressional testimony at the time, as many as 300 people died from silicosis, caused by exposure to silica dust. Cherniack estimates the number to be at least 764 workers — including Flack.

"They would become sick, profoundly short of breath, have severe weight loss, basically be unable to move and function and exercise themselves," Cherniack says.

Flack died on May 20, 1931, two weeks after his last shift in the tunnel. His death certificate says he died of pneumonia, but according to Cherniack, company doctors often misdiagnosed worker deaths or attributed them to a disease they called "tunnelitis."

The company would later use those death certificates to prove there were few, if any, silicosis deaths at the tunnel.

"They never knew the real truth"

Hundreds of local white men worked in the tunnel alongside black migrant workers like Flack, but conditions were even worse for the more than 2,000 black men, who made up the vast majority of the workforce.

Black workers who testified before Congress in 1936 said they were denied 30-minute breaks in clean air. They said if they got sick, supervisors would force them from bed at gunpoint.

According to death certificates, black workers were often buried in unmarked graves. In some cases, there was no attempt to notify the victim's family, according to Watts.

But NPR did find one relative: Sheila Flack-Jones of Charlotte, N.C., who is Dewey Flack's niece.

I'm heartbroken that my family died thinking that he had run away and they never knew the real truth. - Sheila Flack-Jones, whose uncle died from silicosis after working in the Hawks Nest Tunnel

"My father mentioned when I was younger that he did have a brother but the brother he thought had run away," Flack-Jones says of learning her uncle's fate. "I'm heartbroken that my family died thinking that he had run away and they never knew the real truth."

Five years after Flack and over 700 others began to contract silicosis, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor held a hearing on the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. Representatives from the tunnel companies declined to attend. One submitted a letter that called witness testimony "slanderous rumors and hearsay."

"We know of no case of silicosis contracted on this job," the letter concluded.

The congressional committee said the tunnel was completed with "grave and inhuman disregard for all consideration for the health, lives, and future of the employees."

Congress took no action against the companies, but that same year it passed a law requiring the use of respirators in dusty working conditions.

More than 500 lawsuits were filed against Union Carbide and a contractor, Rinehart & Dennis, many of which were settled out of court.

Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide in 2001, did not respond to NPR's requests for an interview.

"Historical amnesia"

Whippoorwill Cemetery in Summersville, W.Va., serves as the final resting place for many of the men who died after working on the Hawks Nest Tunnel.
Adelina Lancianese / NPR

The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster has been memorialized over the years in novels, folk songs and art. In 1938, poet Muriel Rukeyser published The Book of the Dead, based on her interviews with tunnel survivors and their families. The book was reissued in 2018.

Flack-Jones plans to hold her own memorial for her uncle Dewey.

"I'm really, really angry. I am heartbroken," Flack-Jones says. "Do I mourn for my uncle, the one that I never knew? Do I mourn for my family because they thought he had left? Or do I mourn for what he would have become had he lived?"

Watts worked at Union Carbide as an engineer for two decades. He also grew up just miles from the tunnel but had heard of it only a few years ago.

"Anything that is dark about what had happened to African-American people in particular in this state, it is as if it did not happen," Watts says. "We don't talk about it. And that's the nature of West Virginia. We live with the historical amnesia, historical denial."

Whippoorwill Cemetery in Summersville, W.Va., is Flack's final resting place. Records suggest that when Flack died, an undertaker loaded his body onto a wagon with others to bury together.

Charlotte Yeager, a local newspaper publisher, is the caretaker of the Whippoorwill Cemetery.
Adelina Lancianese / NPR

"Sometimes they were just stacked in those vehicles just like cordwood," says local newspaper publisher Charlotte Yeager.

According to Yeager, there was a contract with the undertaker: $50 for each body buried. When the undertaker ran out of room in an old slave cemetery, he buried 40 additional men in plain coffins in a mass grave on his family's farm.

In the 1970s, the farm was excavated to make way for a new road, and the bodies of the workers were reburied at Whippoorwill. The cemetery was abandoned until Yeager found it and restored it, locating each grave with radar equipment. She is now the cemetery's lone caretaker.

At a weekly visit, she assesses the damage from a recent thunderstorm: fallen branches and loose cobblestones. She pauses at a grave, caving in from decades in the soft dirt.

"This is pitiful because that's sunken down," Yeager says, shaking her head. "That's where the casket is. Now that shouldn't be that way at all." She sucks in air through her teeth, holding back tears. "That is sad."

This grave is one of around 40. They're scattered throughout the property, all identical, and each marked by a single wooden cross. It's impossible to know which one belongs to Flack.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
Water pools on a grave at the Whippoorwill Cemetery.
Adelina Lancianese / NPR

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Black lung, an epidemic of the coal miners' disease, is killing thousands of miners across Appalachia. NPR and the PBS program "Frontline" have been working together over the past year and uncovered that the U.S. government repeatedly failed to prevent the outbreak despite multiple opportunities to act. Black lung is caused by breathing in toxic silica dust found in the rock coal miners cut through to get coal. But this isn't the first time silica dust has ravaged a community. NPR's Adelina Lancianese has the story of what's called the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, which killed hundreds of workers nearly a century ago.

ADELINA LANCIANESE, BYLINE: The Hawks Nest Tunnel is still considered an engineering marvel today. Water rushes through the tunnel in Gauley Bridge, W.V. Its gate is visible from the lush Hawks Nest State Park on the mountain above.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLEY JONES: My name is Charley Jones. I live in Gamoca.

LANCIANESE: But almost 90 years ago, this place looked much different. This is tape from a 1930s newsreel about the project.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: I lost three sons, from working in the tunnel, of silicosis. One is 18, one 23 and one 21.

LANCIANESE: It was the Great Depression. Americans were desperate for work. The tunnel project attracted thousands to West Virginia. And most of them were black men fleeing the South.

MATTHEW WATTS: And it's hard for me to even imagine what these men felt like when they got here...

LANCIANESE: That's Reverend Matthew Watts.

WATTS: ...And realized what they had gotten themselves into.

LANCIANESE: He's a minister and an amateur historian in Charleston, W.V.

WATTS: The idea that I can go to a place and work. My kids can possibly go to school. I can have a right to vote. And I'm probably - have a very low probability of being hanged - right? - that was attractive. That was paradise. And when they got here, they found that, in this case, they had ended up in a hellhole, literally.

LANCIANESE: A corporation called Union Carbide had an audacious plan for the workers. Construct a 3-mile-long tunnel through a mountain to divert river water and do it in just 18 months. Thousands of workers drilled holes and then stacked dynamite in them to blast through pure quartz, a type of rock that kicks up silica dust. Silica dust is especially toxic. Once inhaled, it slices at the lung like shards of glass, suffocating workers from the inside out. They came out caked in it, says Catherine Venable Moore, a writer who's documented the tragedy.

CATHERINE VENABLE MOORE: There was a nickname at the time for Gauley Bridge - the town of the living dead - because there were so many sick workers and, I think, also because they had this kind of ghostly presence when they were coming out of the tunnel being covered in this white silica dust.

LANCIANESE: Workers were pulling shifts of 10 to 15 hours. And they didn't understand just how quickly the dust could kill them. Here's another worker on that 1930s newsreel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MINER: I worked in Hawks Nest Tunnel for four months. And each and every day that I work in that tunnel, I had to carry off 10 to 14 men - was overcome by the dust.

MARTIN CHERNIACK: The local doctors really were not quite clear, at first, what they were seeing. We had young, healthy people breaking down and developing acute and severe respiratory disease in a very short period of time. And there really isn't a lot of precedence for that.

LANCIANESE: Dr. Martin Cherniack of the University of Connecticut wrote a book about the tunnel. He estimates more than 760 workers died of silicosis in just 18 months' time.

CHERNIACK: So what would happen is they would become sick, profoundly short of breath, have severe weight loss, basically be unable to move and function and exercise themselves.

LANCIANESE: The African-American men were treated the worst. According to later congressional testimony, they were denied 30-minute breaks in the clean air. They were paid less. And if they were too sick to work, their supervisors would force them from their beds at gunpoint. They died in droves. And they were quickly replaced - Matthew Watts.

WATTS: There was a mentality, you know, that the contractors that were supervising the Hawks Nest Tunnel had. Kill a mule. Buy another one. Kill a man. Hire another one.

LANCIANESE: When one of those men was Dewey Flack. He was African-American, 17 or 18 years old. His age is unclear because, like hundreds of other black tunnel workers, only a few traces of Dewey's life and death remain. Records do show that Dewey was working hundreds of miles away from his home in North Carolina. He would never return.

SHEILA FLACK-JONES: My father mentioned when I was young that he did have a brother.

LANCIANESE: This is Dewey Flack's niece Sheila Flack-Jones.

FLACK-JONES: But the brother, he thought, had run away.

LANCIANESE: She didn't know anything about the Hawks Nest Tunnel or her Uncle Dewey's fate until NPR found her through genealogical records.

FLACK-JONES: I'm heartbroken that my family died thinking that he had run away, and they never knew the real truth.

LANCIANESE: Dewey died two weeks after his last shift in the tunnel. His death certificate is mostly blank. But cause of death is listed as pneumonia. Like many other black workers who died at Hawks Nest, no next of kin was identified.

FLACK-JONES: I'm really, really angry. Here it is 100 years later. Do I mourn for my uncle, the one that I never knew? Do I mourn for my family because they thought he had left? Or do I mourn for what he would have become had he lived? These are things and questions that I'll never have an answer for.

LANCIANESE: Union Carbide and its contractor denied any wrongdoing in a congressional hearing. And lawsuits filed against them were settled out of court. Local workers who died were interred in their families' cemeteries. But black migrant workers like Dewey Flack were loaded together on wagons. Records suggest their bodies were eventually buried in unmarked graves in what's now called Whippoorwill Cemetery in Summersville, W.V.

At a recent visit, fallen branches and loose cobblestones cover the ground. Rain pools in a coffin-shaped indentation, caving in from decades in the soft dirt. This grave is one of about 40. They are scattered throughout the property, all identical, each with a single, wooden cross. It's impossible to know which one belongs to Dewey Flack. Adelina Lancianese, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILICOSIS IS KILLIN' ME")

JOSH WHITE: (Singing) I said, silicosis, you made a mighty bad break of me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You can find our full investigation into black lung on npr.org. The "Frontline" documentary "Coal's Deadly Dust" will be broadcast this coming Tuesday. You can see it on your local PBS station.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SILICOSIS IS KILLIN' ME")

WHITE: (Singing) You robbed me of my youth and health. All you brought poor me was misery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.