When driving up Route 60 along the Kanawha River to our family reunions, the Hawks Nest State Park overlook offered my family a picturesque setting to take a breath, admire the New River Gorge’s beauty or watch hawks circling below. Curious visitors, like I was growing up, may also notice the plaque marking one of the more chilling episodes in West Virginia’s long history of industrial tragedies: the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster, in which several hundred workers were exposed to silica dust and died. Due to a confluence of events in Washington, D.C., that story bears retelling today.
In the 1930s, deep under Hawks Nest, thousands of workers dug through silica-laden rock while building a tunnel to divert the New River to generate power for an industrial plant downriver. In the months and years that followed, at least 476 of those men, and likely far more, died due to silicosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust.