What do you want readers to know about the Hawk's Nest Tunnel disaster?
That 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
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).
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.