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Secrets of a Disaster

In 1930, the construction of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel brought workers from the South to bore a nearly 40-foot high hole in Gauley Mountain in West Virginia as part of an elaborate hydroelectric power system. 

The silica dust coming from the rock covered the workers – most of them black – and settled in their lungs, and they began to die. One analysis posits the number of those who died at 764. And we’re still unable to find all of the names of the dead, many of whom were buried in mass, unmarked graves.

In 1936, Muriel Rukeyser, a Jewish poet from New York traveled to the site, interviewed families of the workers and created, “The Book of the Dead,” a heart-wrenching poem cycle about the events surrounding the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, one of the nation’s worst industrial disasters.

To learn more about the tragedy, Diana Mazzella talked with Catherine Venable Moore, a West Virginia author whose essay introduces the poems in the recent West Virginia University Press reprint of “The Book of the Dead.”

QWhat do you want readers to know about the Hawk's Nest Tunnel disaster?


AThat it happened at all, for one thing. The historical amnesia surrounding the event has been powerful, and suppressive of the truth of what happened and what the personal consequences were for victims’ families. I’m hoping readers take away a deeper, more three-dimensional knowledge of the people, places, and time — I always strive to bring history alive in people’s minds, lift it off the page, intellectually and emotionally.

I also want them to understand that the mass killing at Hawk’s Nest was only possible because of white supremacy and racist beliefs. This often gets clouded over in historical accounts, but it is important to keep it at the center of our understanding. I don’t think that Union Carbide and their contractor, Rinehart and Dennis, were intentionally trying to exterminate black people; it was more subtle than that. Racism played into the inhumane treatment of workers during their lives. And racism allowed their deaths to be discounted, ignored and written off. 

And finally, I want to introduce people to an extraordinary document that hasn’t much been discussed in relation to the tunnel — the poet Muriel Rukeyser’s poem cycle, “The Book of the Dead.” It’s a unique account of events, in verse, which allows readers a rare personal glimpse into victims’ experiences and states of mind. Rukeyser came to Fayette County in the spring of 1936 to interview victims and their families, bringing along a photographer friend, Nancy Naumburg, who took, we think, hundreds of photos of the area (now lost).

Hawk's NestMoore stands in front of the Hawk’s Nest Dam, part of a massive hydroelectric power system constructed in the 1930s. The dam pushes water through the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, the construction of which led to the deaths of hundreds of workers, most from inhaling silica dust. (RAYMOND THOMPSON JR. PHOTO)

This book connects what some would consider unlikely people, a Jewish New Yorker and black Southern workers. What is the value of that connection across geography and culture in  this story?

I think Rukeyser saw Hawk’s Nest as not just a local story but a universal story about power and powerlessness — a modern American tragedy that transcended geographic borders. She saw Hawk’s Nest as not only a political and human tragedy, but she also saw it as mythic; she even called her poem cycle “The Book of the Dead,” a direct reference to the ancient Egyptian book of spells designed to accompany the dead through the afterlife and into the next realm. 

Rukeyser frames her poem cycle as a journey from North to South, from a place of influence and privilege to a place with less of both. Her work in West Virginia is also an example of an outsider with privilege using some of that privilege to take a risk and speak out about something that was not necessarily safe for someone locally to discuss, especially someone whose livelihood depended on Union Carbide’s goodwill toward them, or someone whose race meant they were threatened with greater retribution for any action they might take. Rukeyser had an ongoing poetic and political interest in what was going on with African Americans back then — she had reported on the Scottsboro Trial just prior to her West Virginia trip. She was part of an urban leftist milieu that was invested in working for civil rights and greater social equality among the rich and poor, blacks and whites. 

One big mystery is the disappearance of the photos that Rukeyser’s photographer friend Nancy Naumburg took of the tunnel and its surroundings. What do we know about those photos?

We know that stacks of glass plate negatives once existed. But only three photographs are known to have survived. Two are housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: an image of the village of Vanetta and an image of the inside of tunnel victim George Robinson’s kitchen. Robinson was the leader of the Gauley Bridge Committee, a citizen group that advocated for tunnel victims, so this image is particularly significant. The third is an image of the dam itself, in the possession of Rukeyser’s son. I’m proud to say that all three have been included in the WVU Press reprint, thanks to the Rukeyser and Naumburg families. Perhaps someday a cache of new documentary evidence will be discovered in some attic in Brooklyn, but for now we have only the three images, and of course, the poems themselves.

So much about the disaster is unknown. Should more be uncovered, and why?

I think so, because — if you’ll forgive the cliché — that’s the only chance we have to heal from the tragedy, and learn from it. Collective trauma like this never really goes away; but the process of recovering is so much slower if we continue to deny its full truth. 

What did you feel as you were tracing this story?

I felt mostly dread. This is dark stuff. When I was in the thick of reporting and writing the story, I felt like I was in a metaphoric tunnel, searching for a light at the end. I eventually found enough new material to publish that it felt worth it, but for a while I just felt like — why am I doing this, rooting around in this pain? To what end. 

There’s a list in the book of the names of workers known to have died in making the tunnel. Have there been additions to that list?

The list that was published in the WVU Press reprint was the most current list available at the time. I also maintain a website, hawksnestnames.org, where the list is updated when new names are discovered. Anyone is welcome to get in touch with me through the website to add their relative’s name to the memorial list. 

Catherine Venable Moore is an author and radio producer in West Virginia. Find “The Book of the Dead” at wvupressonline.com.
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