On July 9, 1936, the electric power plant at Union Carbide’s metallurgical plant in Alloy went into operation. The power at the Fayette County plant was generated by water, which flowed through the manmade Hawks Nest Tunnel. Most of the tunnel’s construction had occurred between 1930 and 1932—primarily by black laborers from the South.
The men had drilled and blasted through sandstone in confined spaces that were poorly ventilated and lacking in dust control or breathing protection. Before the project was finished, they began dying of silicosis, a progressive fibrosis of the lungs caused by inhaling pulverized silica dioxide.
Before the work had even begun, Union Carbide officials understood the potential dangers. In fact, they’d expanded the project specifically to mine additional silica. The exact death toll of the project is unknown. Hearings conducted by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1936 attributed 476 deaths to work on the tunnel. A study published in the 1980s indicated that as many as 764 men may have perished. By either count, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is one of the worst industrial tragedies in U.S. history.