A few weeks ago, Marshall’s Lifelong Learning Program (LLP), which is geared to informal adult learning experiences, arranged a fantastic trip to Hawks Nest State Park. Beth Wolfe, the LLP program director, not only arranged the fun stuff, the tram and jet boat ride to view the New River Bridge, but also a visit to the mostly forgotten cemetery of victims of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster. This experience reminded us that Hawks Nest is both a place of delight and dreadfulness.
Hawks Nest State Park, built about 1967 and located near the top of Gauley Mountain, has breathtaking views. Those who drove east of Charleston prior to Interstate 64’s completion frequently used U.S. 60 and stopped at Hawks Nest as a respite from traveling the slow, winding road populated by overloaded coal and lumber trucks.
The area’s beauty is remarkable. Yet there were often rumors and quiet conversations about one of the worst industrial disasters that took place there generations ago. This visit to Hawks Nest provided an opportunity to enjoy the fall foliage and learn more about the area’s horrible history.
Our LLP group had an inside track to the history of the Hawks Nest Tunnel, which is nestled deep below the park. A few days before the LLP’s journey there, Jon Cavendish, a Charleston Realtor and former opera singer, discussed his father’s work as an engineer on this tunnel around 1930. Jon provided striking photos of the tunnel excavation that was commissioned by Union Carbide to provide a never-ending inexpensive supply of hydroelectric power from the New River for its plant in Alloy. Eight decades later, this power supply is still operational.
To get the massive tunnel built, cheap labor was needed. During the Depression, people were desperate for work. The workers were poor and mostly African American. Reports of horrific illnesses and deaths were known to those involved. It is estimated that more than 750 workers died painful deaths from silicosis due to small glass-like particles inhaled when the rocks were blasted and drilled for the tunnel’s construction. Various sources indicate that Union Carbide’s management was provided with masks when they entered the tunnel; the workers were not.
It was bad enough to know that hundreds of hard-working people met their deaths in this terrible way, but to add injury to insult, their final resting places were a sacrilege. Many were placed in a mass anonymous grave on a farm in Nicholas County but later moved for U.S. 19’s widening. About a decade ago, a small cemetery for some of the workers was identified and renovated. Recently, crews installing new power lines for Appalachian Power wrecked that site as they didn’t recognize its importance. To Appalachian Power’s credit, they have agreed to make the site fitting again.
Beth Wolfe arranged for our group to not only visit the Hawks Nest Memorial Cemetery (clear directions are needed) but to also have a chance to hear from Charlotte Yeager, publisher of the Nicholas (County) Chronicle, who has been a prime mover in making sure that the forgotten workers of the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster are no longer forgotten and have a decent final resting place.
There are delightful and dreadful parts of life; Hawks Nest is a reminder of both.