By Steve Keenan
Its history is too important to be tucked away in the distant recesses of our consciousness, says Patricia Spangler.
Spangler’s recently-released book, “The Hawks Nest Tunnel,” explores the tunnel construction in the 1930s that culminated in the diversion of water from the New River through Gauley Mountain for hydroelectric generating purposes, as well as the tragic, subsequent deaths of numerous workers involved in building the tunnel.
“I don’t think it’s a well-known history at all,” Spangler says. “It’s so much richer and more complex (than a typical story of, say, a mine cave-in.)
“To me, the whole event is almost like a time capsule. It has elements of economics, sociology, psychology, human suffering, ... It’s a rich part of West Virginia history. There’s no reason to ignore it and act like it didn’t happen.”
Spangler says she originally began writing the book with the hopes of finding “a juicy smoking gun” that would result in assessing further culpability for the disaster. But she says her quest evolved in a different direction as the project advanced.
She readily admits her book is not as thorough as the definitive tome on the subject, Dr. Martin Cherniack’s 1986 “The Hawk’s Nest Incident: America’s Worst Industrial Disaster.” “His (Cherniack’s) book is so much better; he did a lot of analysis,” she said.
Spangler spent nearly a decade researching and compiling the materials found in her book, describing in detail what is known as the worst industrial disaster in United States history. Included are news clippings, personal interviews, Congressional records, archival photographs, eyewitness accounts and more. She called the book’s research “heartbreaking … and very frustrating.”
“Initially, the information was always sort of hearsay,” Spangler said. “I wanted to find out first-hand, to see if it was really that bad, and it was.”
She also noted that many people have always been reluctant to discuss the building of the tunnel and its aftermath.
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The Hawks Nest tunnel is considered a marvel of modern engineering. Completed in June 1936, the tunnel is 16,240 feet in length and drops in elevation a total of 163 feet. Along with a dam built at the same time, the tunnel funnels water from the New River just below Hawks Nest, bypassing two riverbends to a hydroelectric plant downstream.
The tunnel cuts directly through a seam of silica, sometimes over 99% pure. Evidently, Spangler said, the potential dangers related to working in a silica-rich environment were withheld from the tunnel workers and, within a matter of weeks, the laborers began succumbing to the fatal effects of silica dust. By the time the tunnel was completed, it’s estimated that thousands of men were exposed to, and untold hundreds died from, the exposure, according to the book’s promotional material.
“Working in seams of pure sandstone, the drilling and blasting produced a perpetual haze of silica dust so chokingly thick that visibility often fell to just a few feet. Completely covered with the white dust, long lines of weary miners could be seen emerging from the tunnel after each shift change,” reads a portion of an account of the incident in “A Pictorial History of Gauley Bridge,” published in 1992 by the Gauley Bridge Historical Society. “Coughing became universal, workers began to sicken, some died, and Dr. L.R. Harless soon suggested the cause: silicosis. A particularly horrible disease, silicosis condemns its victims to a slow and suffocating death.”
Among the accounts from congressional hearings into the matter — convened in Jan. 1936 — was testimony of Philippa Allen, a social worker associated with the Jacob A. Reis Neighborhood House in New York City. Allen said it was difficult to determine the number of deaths due to silicosis for several reasons, including: company doctors listing the cause of many deaths as pneumonia, to which silicosis-infected lungs are susceptible; the testimony of an undertaker who handled many of the burials that his records were destroyed; and the workforce scattering after lawsuits brought to light the results of working in the tunnel.
A U.S. Congressional sub-committee ruled that 476 workers employed by contractor Rinehart and Dennis Construction Co. died from silicosis from 1930 to 1935. The investigation also assailed inadequate working conditions, including the absence of wet drilling that would have prevented dust, and poor tunnel ventilation. At the time, Rinehart and Dennis denied those situations existed. Congress also said workers — many of whom were black migrant workers — weren’t warned of potential hazards.
In the book, Spangler interviews Louise Harless, widow of Walter Harless, the youngest son of Dr. L.R. Harless, who examined many of the workers who were battling health problems as a result of their exposure to the silica dust. There are also portions of interviews of chemist Stanley Cavendish by Dennis Deitz and Ken Sullivan in “Goldenseal,” and of worker B.H. Metheney by David Orr and Jon Dragan, which also appeared in “Goldenseal.”
Spangler, a Beckwith resident, also points out that Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation and its local subsidiary, the New-Kanawha Power Company (later Electro-Metallurgical Co.) originally sought status as a public service utility company. “It became clear they did that to avoid having to go through (regulatory controls of) the Department of Mines. It never operated as a public service utility.”
She says more attention still must be paid to prevention of incidents such as Hawks Nest and other industrial hazards.
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The 264-page paperback book — from Wythe-North Publishing — is available for $22.95 from www.wvbookco.com, as well as www.amazon.com and the Ben Franklin frame shop in Fayetteville, among other locations.
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