Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site

Workers memorial sign over entrence to cemetery
Sign over the entrance to the Hawks Nest Workers Memorial and Grave Site

NPS photo, Dave Bieri

Quick Facts

African American Heritage Driving Tour Stop 5: The Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster 

Throughout the years, West Virginia has suffered many a tragedy that left hundreds of workers injured or dead. The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster became one of the worst industrial tragedies in the history of the United States.

In 1930, construction began on a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain located between Ansted and Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. When finished, the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel would divert water from the New River to a hydroelectric plant downstream. In order to build the tunnel through solid rock, hundreds of unemployed men were recruited for construction jobs on the project. At least two-thirds of these workers were African Americans. As the men drilled and blasted the tunnel through the mountain, they drilled through rock that contained high levels of silica. The dry drilling techniques that was used released large amounts of silica dust into the air, which made working in the tunnel very dangerous. Workers emerged from the hole in the mountain covered with layers of white dust. The interior of the tunnel was a white cloud of silica, impairing vision and clogging the lungs of workers.

Excavation of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel lead to the greatest death toll ever from silicosis in the United States. At least 764 tunnel workers died of silicosis. A majority of the dead were African Americans. In the years after the project was completed, many more would die due to their exposure to silica dust while working in the tunnel.

With the death of so many black workers, the problem of where to bury them became an issue. There were a limited number of burial sites for blacks nearby. To solve the issue, a funeral parlor in Summersville, West Virginia located an open field on Martha White’s farm. This field became the burial grounds for many of the African Americans who died working on the tunnel project.

For the full story go to: The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster 

Driving Directions:

Physical Address: 98 Hilltop Drive, Lookout, WV 26679
GPS Coordinates: N38.234467 -W80.852690

From Beckley and Fayetteville, WV: Take Highway 19 north toward Summersville, WV. Pass Highway 60 and travel 12.5 miles to Whippoorwill Road (if you cross Summersville Lake you have gone ½ mile to far). Turn left on Whippoorwill Road and an immediate right onto Hilltop Drive. Tour Stop (cemetery site) is on the right at the end of the road.

From Summersville, WV: Take Highway 19 south to the Summersville Lake bridge. Go another ½ mile and turn right on Whippoorwill Road. Take an immediate right onto Hilltop Drive. Tour Stop (cemetery site) is on the right at the end of the road.

Directions to next Tour Stop: 

Mt. Chapel Missionary Baptist Church
Physical Address: 100 Skaggs Street, Ansted, WV 25812
GPS Coordinates: N38.144374 -W81.104798

From the cemetery, take Hwy 19 South 12 miles to Hwy 60. Take Hwy 60 West 6 miles to Ansted, WV and turn right on Page Street. Travel .3 of a mile to Log Town Road and turn left. Travel .4 of a mile to Mt. Chapel Missionary Baptist Church on the left. Tour Stop and parking are at the church.


New River Gorge National Park and Preserve

Last updated: May 24, 2022