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"1500 Doomed": People’s Press Reports on the Gauley Bridge Disaster

The deadly lung disease silicosis is caused when miners, sandblasters, and foundry and tunnel workers inhale fine particles of silica dust—a mineral found in sand, quartz, and granite. In 1935, approximately 1,500 workers—largely African Americans who had come north to find work—were killed by exposure to silica dust while building a tunnel in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. Ordinarily, silicosis takes a several years to develop, but these West Virginia tunnel workers were falling ill in a matter of months because of exposure to unusually high concentrations of silica dust. The crisis over silicosis suddenly became a national issue, as seen in this article in the radical newspaper Peoples' Press. In 1936 congressional hearings on the Gauley Bridge disaster, it was revealed that company officials and engineers wore masks to protect themselves when they visited the tunnel, but they failed to provide masks for the tunnelers themselves, even when the workers requested them.


476 Dead

1500 Doomed in W. Va.

Tunnel Catastrophe

Picture Caption:

Their only gravestones [are] cornstalks waving in the wind, their shrouds [are] the overalls in which they died, 169 tunnel workers killed at Gauley Bridge were tossed into trenches in this field at Summerville, W. Va., to rot. As they keeled over in the death tunnel, one at a time or several in a day, choked to death by silicosis, they were hauled 40 miles to Summerville and dumped into the grave the same day. No identification, no coffins. The company paid the undertaker $50 a piece to bury them. A wife who came tearfully to claim the remains of her loved one was quietly driven away. There was no way in which his body could be found. They were all victims of America’s worst industrial disaster. Then government officials, newspapers and others conspired to keep this story from the public knowing that soon the witnesses would all be dead. The 26 foremen are already dead. In Gauley Bridge, Town of the Living Dead, men once strong and hearty waste away while loved ones grimly await their death.

Gauley Bridge, W. Va.—America’s greatest industrial catastrophe has been hidden from the public.

There are 476 known dead.

There are nearly 1,500 doomed to die. Of these 200 are believed already dead.

Daily they cough their lives away, their lungs clog, they grow weaker. Finally they fall.

Gauley Bridge, the Town of the Living Dead, shrinks a bit and hurries on. For practically every man in the whole community is doomed to a death like that.

In one cornfield, 169 bodies have been tossed, unmarked. One doctor has treated 307 other men. They’re dead. Some 200 have written desperate letters from other cities—and then have stopped writing!

Desperately, the corporation whose tunnel job caused this holocaust has tried to keep the facts from the public until the last witness was gone. That will not be long. Already all of the 26 foremen are dead.

Mrs. S. E. Harrah sent a two-line item to the county seat paper about ambulances—and her husband was fired. He son, a lawyer, investigated, talked suits. Not any more. Last September he died suddenly. “Heart failure,” they called it.

Mrs. Charles Jones brought suits. Her son, Shirley, 18, was the first to die. Then his brother Owen, 21, died. Then their brother, Cecil, 23. Then an adopted son, Oley Jeffrey. Then Mrs. Jones' brother. She has lived through this horror to see her husband wither before her eyes. Once he weighed 182. Now he weighs 126. He will read his story; we draw the curtain here.

All for Greed

All this because a rich and powerful corporation valued dollars above lives.

When the Rinehart & Dennis, Co., contractors for the New-Kanawha Power Co., started tunneling through two mountains a mile east of Gauley Bridge, on a power project to cost millions, it knew the tunnel would go through silicate rock.

It knew that men working in the tunnel would breathe in the dust.

It knew that without protection they would get silicosis, deadly lung disease.

Behind Rinehart & Dennis was the New-Kanawha Power Co., set to build the tunnel, dissolved as soon as the tunnel was completed late in 1934.

Union Carbide at Top

Behind the New-Kanawha Power Co. is the Electro Metallurgical Co. This is the big company that will use and sell the New Kanawha power.

Behind the Electro Metallurgical Co. is the Union Carbide & Chemical Co., gigantic company spreading into many fields.

Power to be won from the mountains and the rivers of West Virginia was behind the building of the tunnel at Hawk’s Nest, near Gauley Bridge. Dams, powerhouses, and a tunnel through the mountains to increase the drop in the New River and the force of the water power—a huge project, with huge profits to be made, from the power and the enormous silicate deposits.

A huge project, started in 1926, not yet completed, though the death tunnel is done.

Millions have been spent—$20,000,000 already.

Four years ago, preliminary work done, the tunnel was started.

Engineers of the company had made tests. The mountains were full of silicate rock. Silicate—valuable, deadly if breathed into the lungs in large amounts.

No complete protection against silicate was known, when very fine, as in this case. But there were masks that helped. Ventilation shafts would carry some of the dust away.

Lives Against Dollars

These would cost a few thousand dollars, in the $20,000,000 project.

Should Rinehart & Dennis order the masks, the shafts?

The men who own the Electro Metallurgical Co. did not go into the tunnel. They did not see the fine particles of dust, so penetrating that a 48-ton locomotive with headlights on could not be seen five feet away.

They did not see.

The men who would get the profits but never go into the tunnel decided—

Not to buy masks, not to put in air shafts or any other ventilation.

Some 2,000 men worked in the tunnel, 400 to 1,100 at a time. They got 25 to 30¢ an hour and worked 12 hours a day.

They are all dead, dying or doomed to death.

Shirley Jones was the first to die. He was 18, thrilled to get his first job, in love.

‘We’ll Be Marryin’ Soon'

“Think of it, honey,” he told his girl happily. “A job! Twenty-five cents an hour, 12 hours a day. That’s—why, that’s $3 a day! We’ll be marryin' soon, honey.”

Three dollars a day for 12 hours of hell in an airless tunnel filled with fine dust that kept you from breathing, that you might wash off your hands but would never wash out of your lungs.

That’s what Shirley Jones found.

Within three months, he was fighting for breath, fainting, going back to work and fainting again, shaken by agonizing pain in his chest. He was losing weight so rapidly his big bones were hardly covered.

“Don’t know what’s wrong, honey,” he gasped now to his sweetheart.

Finally he had to go to bed.

The First Death

One day he called his mother, Emma Jones, mother at 47 of so many children she had to count them to tell a stranger the number.

“Mom,” Shirley gasped. "I don’t know what’s wrong but I’m a-goin' to die. I think it’s from my work. I want you to have me cut open. If you can get anything from the company, go ahead.

“And mom, get pappy and Uncle Raymond and the boys out of that hole.”

A few days later Shirley was dead.

But pappy and the boys stayed in the tunnel. Three dollars, maybe $3.60, a day’s a lot around Gauley Bridge, and if you didn’t work for the company what could you do?

They stayed in.

The boys are dead—Owen, 21, Cecil, 23, the adopted boy, Oley Jeffrey. Owen died second; Cecil, who had a wife and two children, last. Silicosis kills the young first. Mrs. Jones' brother Raymond Johnson is dead. Her husband still lives!

What Was Andrew Mellon Doing in Gauley Bridge in 1926?

Watch the People’s Press for answers to these questions.

An Appeal for the Dying

In the name of greed, 476 men—at least—are dead. Another 1,500 are doomed of whom 200 probably are dead in other places.

The dying are unable to get state or federal relief.

The doomed who can still work cannot get jobs. Employers know they are doomed.

The wives and children of the dead, the families of the dying and the doomed live at the edge of the starvation line.

Greed put them there.

In the name of humanity, the People’s Press asks you to help them.

Any sum, large or small, $100 or 1¢ will make life a little easier for this Town of the Living Dead.

They will not get help from the millionaires who kill 2,000 men for a few dollars. That we know.

So we urge you to help them. Everything given will go directly to these people in desperate need.

Send what you can to:

The Gauley Bridge Fund,

Care of the People’s Press, Eastern Branch,

245 Seventh Avenue, New York City.

Source: People’s Press, 7 December 1935. NARA, Record Group 174, Department of Labor, Sec. Frances Perkins, Labor Standards Jan.-April 1936, Box 59.