It seems bizarre that one of the USA’s worst-ever industrial disasters happened without a single casualty being recorded, but that’s exactly how it was… until the true scale of an unfolding tragedy became apparent. The Depression Era was hard for working-class Americans, so when an ambitious engineering project in West Virginia was announced men hurried from all over the South to join locals from the pretty riverside town of Gauley Bridge as a workforce of 3,000 assembled.
The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel would be a 5 km (3 mi) shaft beneath Gauley Mountain, designed to divert most of the dammed New River’s flow to power huge turbines that would generate electricity for Union Carbide’s industrial plant downstream at Alloy. The dam was to be built by US Army Engineers, but tunneling was subcontracted to a private firm and work began in the late 1920s.
The rock to be penetrated turned out to be sandstone, consisting of almost pure silica – a mineral that is valuable after being pulverized and melted. The diameter of the tunnel – originally set at 5 m (16 ft) – was increased to 11 m (35 ft) and it became a mining operation that also happily delivered the planned tunnel. This awesome engineering achievement generated its first electricity in 1936 and has been doing so continuously ever since.
But silica is deadly, creating fine airborne powder when mined that can cause immediate breathing difficulties and often leads to silicosis, a fatal lung disease. As times were hard, two men clamored to replace every tunneler who was unable to carry on. Managers wore masks, workers did not. The first silicosis deaths occurred before work was completed, and hundreds more would die in the years ahead. The impressive Hawk’s Nest Tunnel would indeed prove to be a major industrial tragedy.
Where: Gauley Bridge, Fayette County, West Virginia, USA
Death toll: Uncertain, since many workers dispersed to their homes when the project was complete and were never monitored. But a subsequent congressional hearing placed the figure at 476 and more realistic estimates put the true total at around 1,000, a third of the workforce.
You should know: The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel was a great feat of engineering, but the price paid may be gauged by the fact that the picturesque river settlement of Gauley Bridge became known as ‘the town of the living dead’.