About, “Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster!”
• The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is considered to be one of the worlds worst industrial disasters and by some the worst in American history.
• The project started in 1927, by Union Carbide, to divert the New River through a tunnel to create hydroelectricity for its Alloy plant.
• The tunnel was to be 3.8 miles long with a diameter of 30 feet.
• Without masks or breathing equipment, the Silica found throughout the rock would make workers succumbed to acute silicosis also known as “tunnelitis.”
• Out of the 2900 underground workers employed throughout the 5-year project, an estimated 1 out of 3 would die and the majority of those during their first year of work. Ninety percent lasted less than a year, 80 percent lasted less than six months, 60 percent lasted less than two months. The average black worker lasted 15 weeks; the average white worker lasted a single week longer.
• There were 109 admitted deaths, a Congressional hearing put the death toll at 476, and a study done in 1986 set the estimated number of deaths to 764.
• More workers were to die after the project finished in 1935 due to the debilitating disease making the number of deaths climb even higher.
• African Americans at the time were not permitted to be buried in “white” cemeteries and in the darkness of night an estimated 169 bodies would be taken to Martha White’s Farm in nearby Summersville and buried unceremoniously.
• The remains laid forgotten for 40 years until the widening of US Route 19, in 1972, the decomposed remains were discovered, placed in 48 child size coffins and reburied in a small plot of land beside the highway and forgotten about once again.
• The gravesite for the workers became a local dumping grounds for trash, appliances, tires, and debris.
• Not until 2010 did WV add its labor history to its curriculum. Such things as the Matewan Massacre, Battle of Blair Mountain, and the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster were slowly becoming erased from history.
• Learning of the worker’s gravesite and local dumping ground, George and Charlotte Neilan organized a consortium to clean the site and officially make the site a recognized memorial and cemetery.
• On September 7th of 2012, a ceremony dedicating and consecrating Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site, Whippoorwill Cemetery, finally honoring these Men who died building the Hawks Nest Tunnel.
• The Hawks Nest Tunnel is still used to generate power today and at the cost of over 764 souls.
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