The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 7, 2011

Author explains history behind tunnel disaster

Individuals and organizations are banding together in the hopes of spreading awareness about the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, and to create a memorial at the site where many victims were buried in unmarked and mass graves.

On Sunday, Dr. Dwight Harshbarger, author of “Witness at Hawks Nest,” spoke at Mountain State University about the history behind the disaster, the event’s absence from common knowledge and history textbooks, and his own historical fiction novel.

His book places a fictional character into the midst of actual events and real people from the event. It is the culmination of extensive research and uses personal accounts and transcripts of later trails.

Harshbarger chronicled the history of the Union Carbide hydroelectric, 46-foot-diameter tunnel and the extraction of silica, from its start in 1927.

During the 18 months it took to drill the tunnel, 5,000 men were employed on the project, he said.

Of those, 60 percent worked two months or less. But through his research, Harshbarger learned that even individuals who only worked one or two shifts underground died from silicosis, the oldest known industrial disease.

Epidemiologist Martin Cherniack estimated that within five years of breaking ground on the tunnel, 764 men, mostly African-American migrant workers, died from the debilitating lung disease.

Harshbarger reports that this is a low estimate.

The men who worked underground, he said, were forced to practice dry drilling for speed, often only able to see 10 to 12 feet in front of them.

Harshbarger reported that, although gas mask technology was available, the men wore nothing to protect themselves from breathing in silica dust.

“They never treated it as a mine, but it was. It did not operate with mine regulations,” Harshbarger asserted.

As men began to get sick, the company hired two physicians, but “the men were told that they were not taking care of themselves and the doctors treated them with placebos, calling their illness ‘tunnelitis.’”

By 1931, rumors began to circulate that men were dying and being buried in unmarked, mass graves, he said.

By 1937, power was being generated by the tunnel; it is still generating power today.

“It was an engineering marvel, except for the cost of human life,” said Harshbarger.

Alongside other critical moments in West Virginia labor history, like the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster only became a part of the state’s history curriculum with the 2010 advent of Labor History Week, he noted.

To prevent important moments in state history from being lost, and to remember and honor those who died at Hawks Nest, a consortium plans to create a memorial at one or more burial locations.

George and Charlotte Neilan, publishers of the Nicholas Chronicle, have spearheaded work on Whippoorwill Graveyard in Nicholas County.

George Neilan said during the expansion of U.S. 19 in 1971, the Division of Highways uncovered a mass grave of Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster victims. They were moved to Whippoorwill Graveyard.

The consortium asks that those who have any history, knowledge or names of those who died of silicosis to contact the group by e-mail at

The group also hopes that others will get involved in remembering and honoring those who died.

Partners in this consortium are the Beckley Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, George and Charlotte Neilan, Mountain State University and New River Community and Technical College.

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