An old VFW medal recalls an industrial tragedy

The medal likely belonged to a worker from Bayonne

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An old VFW medal recalls an industrial tragedy
The VFW medal found at the Hawks Nest Tunnel

A historic Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) medal, awarded to a Bayonne resident in 1925, has been recovered in West Virginia.

While metal-detecting near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, Gary Hartman came upon a buried railroad spur. The railroad ran for about a mile from Gauley Bridge to the outlet of Hawks Nest Tunnel. 

At the tunnel, Hartman discovered the old medal and sent it to VFW Post 226 Commander Glen Flora in Bayonne. Flora said it is not clear who the medal belonged to, but that it was awarded by Post 226 for that person’s service.

The medal is now on display in the Joyce-Herbert VFW Post 226 Military and Veterans’ Museum, at 16 West 9th Street.

Hawks Nest Tunnel

Hawks Nest Tunnel was constructed in 1930 by contractor Dennis & Rinehart as part of a project to improve a hydroelectric power plant in Alloy, West Virginia, according to Congressional records.

A three-mile tunnel was built under Gauley Mountain which diverted water from nearby New River to the power plant to generate electricity.

During the construction of the tunnel, the mineral, silica, was discovered. The mineral was subsequently mined from the tunnel for use in electro-steel processing.

The mining operation ended in calamity, leading to the deaths of hundreds of people in what is now known as the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.

The memorial to the disaster in West Virginia

Disaster strikes

In the midst of the Great Depression, about 3,000 people from across the country traveled to West Virginia to work in the mine at Hawks Nest Tunnel. According to a 1931 report by the Fayette Tribune, approximately three-fourths of the miners were African-Americans fleeing the South.

Flora said that the recovered VFW medal found at Hawks Nest Tunnel must have belonged to a Bayonne resident who traveled there to work in the mine.

Conditions for the mine workers were poor. Miners were crowded into construction camps and housed in 12-by-15-foot shacks, according to the West Virginia Historical Society.

The miners were not provided respirators and equipment while mining silica from sandstone in the tunnel. When the sandstone was drilled into and blasted with dynamite, silica dust was blasted into the air.

The dust became so dense that workmen could see only a few feet in front of them. Workers left the tunnel at the close of a working shift with their clothing and bodies covered with a thick coating of white silica dust.

As a result of the exposure to silica dust, many miners developed silicosis, a debilitating lung disease.

In a Congressional hearing in 1936, African-American miners who worked on the tunnel testified that they were denied breaks in clean air and were forced to work even if they got sick, sometimes at gunpoint.

Death by silicosis

A large number of miners eventually died from the disease. Many of the dead were reportedly dumped in the river bed and covered with the tunnel rock or buried in unmarked graves in a nearby cornfield to cover up the immensity of the tragedy.

Silicosis was often misdiagnosed as pneumonia and listed as the cause of death in most instances, which the contractor later used to claim there were few cases of silicosis.

Since many workers returned home or left the region after becoming ill, it was difficult to calculate the exact death toll.

According to the West Virginia Department of Culture and History, an estimated 109 workers died during construction of the tunnel. The Congressional hearing later determined that approximately 476 deaths occurred as a result of silicosis from 1930 to 1935.

Almost 100 years later, the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster ranks among the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. As a result of the tragedy, acute silicosis was recognized as an occupational lung disease, and compensation legislation was adopted to protect workers.

Residents can view the medal at the VFW Post 226 Veterans’ Museum on Saturdays from noon until 4 p.m. Tour reservations are recommended.

Face masks and social distancing are required to see this amazing museum. For further information and tour reservations, call 201-858-1416.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.

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