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Before Black Lung, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster Killed Hundreds

A forgotten example of the dangers of silica, the toxic dust behind the modern black lung epidemic in Appalachia.

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.

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."