West Virginia
Historical Society

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by Jennifer Jordan

From the West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, 12:2(April 1998): 1-3.

"Out of the south and out of the East they came, and out of Joplin, Missouri, and Pitcher, Oklahoma, searching their way toward the rocky, irregular state. Depression-ridden and work-hungry, they set out, leaving their families behind. . . . 'Jesus Christ, money in your pocket!' A fellow said there was work in West Virginia. 'They're diggen a hole through a mountain in West Virginia. Even the niggers are maken forty cents.'"

--Hawks Nest, a novel by Hubert Skidmore

The thirties. Hard times. The promise of work, a big tunnel job, is passed along the grapevine, so men hop freight trains headed for the West Virginia hills. The drama that unfolded, the exploitation of workers in the darkest days of the Depression, was later judged by a Congressional subcommittee to be "hardly conceivable in a democratic government in the present century." Hundreds of men contracted a mysterious disease while excavating a tunnel near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia and began "dying like flies" within a year after the job began. Some thought it was pneumonia, some thought "fever." A company doctor, in a ludicrous flight of fancy, called it "tunnelitis."1 One West Virginian summed it up simply: "You look at that tunnel there, and you think it's a mighty fine thing. Just from looking at it, a man would never know how many lives were sacrificed."2

The tunnel was of singular importance to the expanding Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation, which was developing he technology and markets for a whole new world of alloyed metals, chemicals and plastics.3 The Kanawha Valley promised ample resources to support a permanent chemical plant, should the experimental venture prove successful, so in 1920 the corporation bought a small gasoline plant with a compressor station and natural gas supply in Clendenin, and set up shop with only a handful of enterprising young chemists.4

Part of the growing industrial empire would lie near the town of Gauley Bridge, where the corporation planned to harness a valuable resource of the Kanawha Valley-water power. The key element in the ambitious hydroelectric project was a tunnel designed to divert the meandering New River from Hawks Nest down a three-mile course through Gauley Mountain to a power station to be built near Gauley Bridge. The 100,000 kilowatts of electricity generated by the force of the river's 168-foot fall through the mountain would be transmitted five miles west to fire the electric arc furnaces of a huge ferroalloys smelting plant which the Electro-Metallurgical Company was planning to build on the Kanawha.5

Construction on the Hawk's Nest project got underway when the company announced that a 4.23 million dollar contract had been awarded to Rinehart and Dennis Corporation of Charlottesville, Virginia. The company was given two years from that date, March 13, 1930, to complete the tunnel, dam and powerhouse. Rinehart and Dennis had no problem finding men to work, and they had plenty of jobs to offer. Generally, the skilled workers came in from the South with the contractor, while unskilled jobs were filled by local men and large number of Southern Negroes, who were recruited. Black workers made up 75 percent of the tunnel labor force. The verbal abuse and rough treatment of black workers on the job was worse, in the opinion of local whites, than they had ever seen before.6

As word traveled that the Kanawha Valley was booming, a steady stream of workers began to "hobo" in on the freight trains from all sections of the country. Workers were crowded into three construction camps and housed in jerry-built shacks, 12 feet by 15 feet, which were divided into two rooms. Each room was equipped with a coal heater, a double-decker bunk which stretched along the side of the room, and any dynamite boxes the workers could salvage from the job site. Both single men and families lived in the shacks, about eight to a room, and paid one dollar a week per worker for "shack rent" and electricity, plus 50 cents a week for the services of a company doctor and a local hospital. Wages of 35 cents per hour did not go far with that kind of expense.

Rinehart and Dennis were to take all possible precautions because the hazards of breathing silica dust from mining were well known to civil and mining engineers in the 1930s. The most common method of reducing the dust in the air, wet drilling, was not used because water would choke up the bits, slowing down the operation.

"I was there diggin' that tunnel for six bits a day,
Didn't know I was diggin' my own grave.
Silicosis eatin' my lungs away.

Six bits for diggin', diggin' that tunnel hole,
Take me away from my baby,
It sho' done wrecked my soul.

Now tell all my buddies, tell all my friends you see,
I'm going away up yonder.
Please don't weep for me."

--"Silicosis is Killin' Me," a blues ballad from the collection of Alan Lomax

Rumors circulated wildly about the number of men dying. Some were dumped in the river bed and covered with the tunnel rock. Others were transported to Nicholas County and buried unceremoniously on a private farm. Pneumonia was given as the cause of death in most instances.7

In May, the Chief of the State Department of Mines began an investigation of working conditions on the tunnel project. According to the Fayette Tribune, the investigation was "precipitated by an unusual number of deaths . . . through accidents and disease: and the death rate was "high, especially among colored workers." No report, or any further mention of the investigation appeared in the local newspaper.

In the fall, alarming numbers of men became sick with what was believed to be pneumonia. They complained of chest pains, shortness of breath and of generally feeling rundown.8 All along, the wives of tunnel workers feared the powdery tunnel dust which collected in the hair, in the eyebrows and on the clothes of their menfolk. When they came home from work and dropped their clothes on the floor, the dust would scatter all over the room.

Some of the wives and mothers were not satisfied with the company doctor's diagnosis. In desperation, they pooled their money to put the sicker boys in a Charleston, West Virginia hospital for x-rays. The x-rays were read by a local doctor, Leonidas Ryan Harless, who became intrigued with what he saw.9

Within a few weeks of the first deaths, a Fayetteville law firm contacted Dr. Harless about his examinations of the boys. Dr. Harless described his findings of silicosis and agreed to examine other workers who would be represented by the law firm in litigation against the contracting firm of Rinehart and Dennis, and the New-Kanawha Power Company. So began the long, frustrating ordeal to gain compensation for the victims of the Hawks Nest tunnel. A parade of tunnel workers, white and black, took the stand describing the dry drilling and the effects of breathing air heavy with rock dust and gasoline fumes. Counsel for the defense maintained that the Hawks Nest tunnel had the best ventilation of any ever constructed by Rinehart and Dennis, and that the working conditions and machinery on the Hawks Nest job were the best ever known. At the end of five weeks, the case was sent to a jury which reported back to Judge J. W. Ear that they were deadlocked, and were discharged.10

Two months later, under the threat of another trial, a settlement was reached. The claimants divided, based on the severity of their illness, $130,000. This was only approximately three percent of the $4 million dollars in damages originally sought.11

1. Alicia Tyler, Dust to Dust, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Tragedy (New York: Gallery, 1982), 16.

2. Hubert Skidmore, Hawk's Nest (New York: Doubleday, Doran and Co. 1941), 63.

3. Martin Cherniak, The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster (New York: Vail-Ballou, 1986), 31.

4. Skidmore, 72.

5. Tyler, 40.

6. Skidmore, 56.

7. Cherniak, 154.

8. John Rockefeller, The American Coal Miner (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh Press, 1977), 128.

9. Cherniak, 172.

10. Cherniak, 188.

11. Cherniak, 189.

BOOK REVIEW: Ohio County (WV) Index

Reviewed by Larry L. Legge, West Virginia Historical Society
From the West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly, 12:2(April 1998): 4.

OHIO COUNTY (WV) INDEX, VOLUME 1 (INDEX TO COUNTY COURT ORDER BOOKS 1777-1881 [PART 1]). By Kenneth Fishcer Craft, Jr. (Heritage Books, Inc., 1540-E Pointer Ridge Pl., Suite 300, Bowie, MD 20716. 1997. 214+81 pp. Maps, tables, time line, and subject index. Paper $39.95.)

For the genealogist who shuns the thought of spending tedious hours in front of a microfilm reader, a good abstract or index to the material contained on the microfilm is a welcome tool. Ohio County (WV) Index, Volume 1 will be such a tool for those digging in the family roots or for other historical material in Ohio County, Virginia/West Virginia. The author reminds the reader that the original (1777) Ohio County covered all of the present West Virginia counties of Ohio, Hancock, Brooke, Marshall, Wetzel, Tyler, and small parts of Doddridge and Pleasants counties.

The foundation for this index is apparently a WPA project initiated in the 1930s to provide work for those who needed it. The information from the order books was indexed, perhaps using 3 x 5 cards, and then typed on preprinted forms and these forms were reproduced from four rolls of microfilm in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at West Virginia University. The original index pages are reproduced in full in Ohio County (WV) Index, Volume 1 and include personal names, by year, with annotation for each entry.

The microfilm basically contains two types of indices: a "Plaintiff"or "Miscellaneous" and a "Defendant." This volume provides an easier index to the majority of the 1930 "Plaintiff" or "Miscellaneous" index. Entries are sorted according to 65 subject headings, such as attorneys, bridge orders, constables, commissioners, ministers, sheriffs, and deputies, etc. With the new index of Volume 1, the researcher has access to more than 6,700 index entries.

The forthcoming Volume 2 will cover "Revolutionary War" pension entries as well as numerous subjects relating to "Road Orders-Supervisors,Surveys, Commissioners, etc.," and will also contain the remaining entries of the 1930 "Miscellaneous" index.

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