Gauley Bridge


As the economic crisis (of the Great Depression) worsened and unemployment mounted, workers became willing to face any kind of physical hazard in order to hang onto their jobs. This served only to diminish the already feeble pressures on industry to eliminate or reduce such hazards. Conditions were ripe for a disaster of the first magnitude, and it happened at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, in 1930 and 1931.

            In retrospect, it is incredible that the story of the digging of the tunnel near Gauley Bridge did not break until 1935. Although much controversy was to surround the calculation of the project's human cost, a U.S. Public Health Service official testifying before a Congressional committee in 1961 put it at 476 dead and 1,500 disabled. Yet it took five years from the time construction began for nationwide attention to focus on the tragedy, and the full facts did not emerge until a year later in the course of a Congressional hearing.

            The New Kanawha Power CO., a subsidiary of Union Carbide, secured a permit from the West Virginia legislature to build a hydroelectric plant in the southern part of the state, ostensibly for the purpose of supplying badly needed energy to the impoverished surroundings In fact, the primary needed energy to the impoverished surroundings. In fact, the primary function of the plant was to power the nearby Electro-Metallurgical Co., another Union Carbide subsidiary engaged in the electro-processing of steel. Water from the New and Kanawha rivers was to be diverted through a tunnel to be built through a mountain near the town of Gauley Bridge. In 1929, the Rhinehart-Dennis Co. was chosen as the subcontractor on the tunnel construction project.

            The original plan called for a tunnel width of thirty-two feet. But when the rock formation at the tunnel site was found to contain a high silica content, New Kanawha Power changed the specification to allow a forty-six-foot width, so that silica excavated from the tunnel might be shipped to the Electro-Metallurgical Co. to be used in the processing of steel.

            Actual construction began in 1930. Rhinehart-Dennis recruited its labor force from Pennsylvania, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ohio, as well as from the surrounding hills of West Virginia. Most of the workers were black and unskilled. The pay scale began at fifty cents an hour, but as the Depression wore on, it dropped to as low as thirty cents an hour. Blacks paid fifty cents a week for their living quarters, ten-by-twelve-foot shacks, each of which housed twenty-five to thirty men, women, and children. They paid seventy-five cents a week for medical care, while whites paid fifty cents a week for the same service.

            Working conditions strained credulity. Gasoline-powered trains filled the tunnel with carbon monoxide, poisoning the workers and making them drowsy. The dust was often so thick that workers couldn't see ten feet in front, even with the headlight of a train. (Indeed, occasionally trains collided with each other.) Though West Virginia mining law required a thirty-minute wait after blasting, workers were herded back into the tunnel immediately after a blast. The foremen at times had to beat them with pick handles to get them to return. The silica content of the rock being blasted was extremely high. Though New Kanawha Power warned its engineers to use masks when entering the tunnel, no one ever told the workers to take precautions.

            Increasing numbers of workers became progressively shorter of breath and then dropped dead. Rhinehart-Dennis contracted with a local undertaker to bury the blacks in a field at fifty-five dollars per corpse. Three hours was the standard elapsed time between death in the tunnel and burial. In this way, the company avoided the formalities of an autopsy and death certificate. It was estimated that 169 blacks ended up in the field, 2 or 3 to a hole.

            Whenever the doctors did perform an autopsy, they concluded that the cause of death was tuberculosis, pneumonia, or "tunnelitis." But the actual precipitating cause of most of the deaths was silicosis, which transformed lungs into a mass of scar tissues as a result of the inhalation of dust with a high silica content. Before work on the tunnel began, it was a known fact that prolonged exposure to dust with a 25-30 percent silica content could cause silicosis. The silica content of the dust in the tunnel was 90-95 percent. There was little ventilation. Men were dying from nine to eighteen months after brief exposures to the silica. Toward the end of the project, some workers purchased their own respirators for $2.50. The purchasing agent for Rhinehart-Dennis was overheard to say to a respirator salesman, "I wouldn't give $2.50 for all the niggers on the job." The paymaster was also overheard to tell the superintendent, "I knew they was going to kill those niggers within five years, but I didn't know they was going to kill them so quick."

            The deadly dust, however, was not color-conscious. The foreman who herded the men into the tunnel died. The assistant superintendent died. White workers died. Fifty percent of the tunnel workers died or were in the various stages of silicosis. Gauley Bridge and surrounding towns became villages of the living dead. In July, 1934, an official of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration visited the black community in one of the towns. Of the 43 males in the community of 101, 33 were dying of terminal silicosis. The official recommended relocation. "It is unadvisable socially," he noted, "to keep a community of dying persons intact."

            At the time of the Gauley Bridge disaster, the West Virginia workmen's compensation act did not cover silicosis, so that those workers who wanted to press claims had to sue at common law. Under West Virginia law, as interpreted by that state's Supreme Court, lawsuits against Rhinehart-Dennis and New Kanawha Power had to be filed within one year of the harmful exposure to silica dust, a patently unfair rule because many of the workers did not become aware until much later that they had contracted the lung disease. Some two hundred cases were thrown out of court because of the one-year rule.

            The trials themselves were a macabre burlesque. A Rhinehart-Dennis foreman testified in a wheezing voice that there had been no dust in the tunnel. (He later died of silicosis.) The chief of West Virginia's Mines Department testified that he had observed no dust in the tunnel in 1930 or 1931, yet in 1931 he had written letters urging the company to do something about the dust condition. One of the jurors was held in contempt for riding home every evening in a company car. Rumors of jury tampering abounded, and workers found themselves unable to win the necessary unanimous verdicts. The juries consistently voted eleven-to-one or ten-to-two in favor of the workers, which meant that a new trial would be necessary. Finally, 167 of the suits were settled out of court for $130,000, with one-half going to the workers' attorneys. Payments were meager, with blacks receiving $80 to $250, and whites from $250 to $1000. One law firm representing workers accepted a $20,000 payment on the side from the companies in order to make the lawyers more amenable to a settlement. When this bit of chicanery came to light, the lawyers were compelled to pay back half of this sum, which was then distributed among their clients.



1.         For a further discussion of the Gauley Bridge disaster, see Martin G. Cherniack, The Hawk's Nest Incident (1986).

2.         Although workers' compensation laws and industrial safety laws were enacted in nearly every state by 1920, meaningful preventive action did not begin until the mid-1930s. It was not until 1970 that comprehensive national legislation was enacted. Despite major advantages, the human costs of workplace exposures remain high. According to 1985 government estimates, there are about 6,000 deaths annually due to injuries and between 5.6 million and 11.3 million nonfatal injuries. Occupational illness is harder to estimate, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there were 240,000 new cases of occupational illness in 1988, with 20,000 annual deaths from cancer alone.

3.         Although Gauley Bridge-type disasters are rare, callous disregard for workers' lives, especially when the workers are members of vulnerable minorities, still occurs. In a celebrated trial in 1985, there former corporate officials were convicted of murder and reckless conduct in the 1983 death of an employee who inhaled lethal concentrations of cyanide at a silver-recovery plant in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. The company hired undocumented Mexican and Polish workers and had them working over open vats of a cyanide solution in removing silver from used film plates. The defendants were each sentenced to twenty-five years in prison and fined $10,000. The convictions were overturned in 1990 because different mens rea requirements for murder and reckless conduct made conviction for both offenses inconsistent.

            Ironically, OSHA had inspected the company only days before the fatality, but the inspector simply checked the employer's injury and illness records and left without inspecting the actual working conditions. An insurance company's safety inspector, who had actually inspected the facility, had warned company officials that there were too many vats with no ventilation. The company's response was to bring in additional vats and move the business office elsewhere.

            After the fatality, OSHA issued a citation against the company, Film Recovery Systems, and proposed a $4,000 penalty. The penalty was later reduced to $2,000, but OSHA made no effect to collect the money after the company assured OSHA that it was going out of business. The equipment was subsequently moved to Florida, where the company set up shop again, reportedly with conditions worse than ever.

            In September 1993, three former company officials pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter before they were to be retried on murder.