CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – A tunnel with some hidden history is finally undergoing inspection for the first time in decades. This is part of a dam project to ensure its safety, but to also show how hydroelectric power is used.
The purpose of this project is to inspect the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. It hasn’t been done in 86 years and so far, the craftsmanship has been impeccable.
Deep in the new river lies the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel built in the 1930s.
The tunnel takes the impounded water from Hawk’s Nest Lake to the powerhouse to spin the turbines to produce power for West Virginia Alloys today.” Andy Davis, Brookfield Renewable Energy said.
Most West Virginians know the tunnel not for its hydroelectric use, but for the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster. It one of the worst industrial tragedies in U.S. history.
An estimated 2,900 people worked inside the tunnel drilling through rocks that contained high levels of silica. The dry drilling technique released large amounts of silica dust into the air – impairing vision and clogging lungs.
At least 764 workers died of silicosis. Most of them were African Americans.
Gauley resident Roy Miller says he’s heard a lot about the disaster from his grandmother and has discovered some history himself.
“I explored one cave. I found the same bed and fireplace that he had, and skeleton remains were still there. In other words, he died of silicosis probably,” Miller said.
Although those workers have long ago passed away, their work remains intact.
“What we’ve seen with the remote operated vehicles and then photos that we’ve inspected is this facility is in the exact same shape it was when it was built,” Davis said.
Workers say they inspect the outside of the dam all the time, but the stuff that’s underwater doesn’t get inspected since it’s least accessible.
“This hasn’t been done since the facility was constructed. We’re able to use today’s technology to do this project safely and make sure everything is in working order,” Davis said.
The workers working on this project say the tunnel won’t be inspected for several more years.
As a part of the de-watering project, workers are releasing water downstream into what is known as the dries. That water is ideal for rafting, kayaking and river use of rapids that haven’t been in the area since the tunnel was built.