The Hawks Nest Tunnel and Dam – A History Lesson

Hawks Nest State Park is a great place to visit while you explore the New River Gorge. From the Park’s lofty perch on the rim of the Gorge, you can catch a view of the Hawks Nest Dam down below. What you cannot see is the tunnel that was built beside the dam to divert the river’s waters to a power plant. Built by Union Carbide to generate power for its metals plant at Alloy, WV, this tunnel is infamous for the troubles that occurred during its construction. It is considered one of the worst industrial disasters in American history, albeit one of the least known.

The Tunnel

On March 30, 1930, ground was broken to begin construction on the Hawks Nest Tunnel. This tunnel would be used to divert much of the flow of the New River from the Hawks Nest Dam under Gauley Mountain some 3 miles to a hydro-electric plant at the other end. Not long after construction was started, it was discovered that the rock they were cutting had a high silica content. The material could be used in steel making.

Rhinehart and Dennis, a company from Charlottesville, VA, was awarded the contract. They hired some 3,000 mostly African-American migrant workers from the south to complete the project. The high silica content of the rock made the building of the tunnel dangerous work. The workers were not provided with proper safety equipment. Drilling that should have been done using water was not. All of this in order to save time and money. The workers were exposed to the silica dust and developed a lung disease called silicosis.

This deliberate disregard for safety became evident fairly quickly, as some of the workers became sick and died from silicosis within a year. There were only 109 admitted deaths, but according to a Congressional hearing conducted later, there were 476 deaths attributed to the project. Other sources since that time have said the number could actually be as high as 700 to 1,000 deaths. This takes into account the workers that could have had minimal exposure to the silica but were affected by it later in life.

The Dam

The Hawks Nest Dam was completed in 1933, changing a large portion of the New River. It created a 250-acre lake behind the dam that offered more recreation for the area.

And because a portion of the flow of the New River would be diverted through the tunnel, it created a 5-mile stretch where the river would have low flows during much of the year. This stretch of river is referred to as the “Dries” because there’s very little water running through it when the New River is at normal flow conditions.

The dam and lake sit right below Hawks Nest State Park and offer swimming, boating, fishing, and activities.

The dam and the tunnel are still in operation and provide power for a silica metals plant. No longer owned by Union Carbide, the structures were purchased a few years ago by a power company and will provide electricity to the plant and the public for years to come.

Have you been to the Hawks Nest Dam? Share with us in the comments.