Before Black Lung, Union Carbide’s Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds Of Black Workers

In the photo above, dust circles a worker during the construction of the Hawks Nest Tunnel in 1930. Workers on the project were exposed to toxic levels of silica dust; hundreds ultimately died. (Courtesy of Elkem Metals Collection, West Virginia State Archives.)

By Adelina Lancianese
NPR (1/20/19)

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.

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