• U.S.

Medicine: Silicosis

6 minute read

Gauley Bridge is a disheveled village on the forest-fringed New River of central West Virginia. There six years ago, a construction company named Rinehart & Dennis began to excavate a three-mile waterpower tunnel for a subsidiary of Union Carbide & Carbon Corp. Last week Rinehart & Dennis were putting in last licks on their tunnel. But many a man who began the digging in 1929 was not alive to see the finish in 1936. Some had died of silicosis, incurable lung disease caused by inhaling silica dust. Pneumonia and tuberculosis had caused the deaths of others who may or may not have been suffering with silicotic irritation.

Recently the radical press of the nation learned about the deaths at Gauley Bridge, began to rattle the skeleton of what it claimed was a hideous industrial scandal (TIME: Jan. 6). One who heard the clatter was young Representative Vito Marcantonio of Manhattan, who has a sharp ear for the kind of news stories that will help him in his Harlem district. As a friend of the working man he called for a Congressional investigation and witnesses. Quickly formed in Manhattan was a National Gauley Bridge Committee to which such notables as Professor Haven Emerson of Columbia University, Socialist Norman Thomas and Drug Manufacturer William Jay Schieffelin subscribed. They paid expenses to Washington of a few Gauley Bridge residents to testify before Congressman Marcantonio’s Committee, which by last week had heard the following evidence:

Gaunt Philippa Allen, social worker, testified: “Dry drilling was the cause of the dense silica dust. It would stop when State mine inspectors entered the tunnel. Men acted as lookouts to warn of their presence. As a result inspectors testified that the tunnel was practically dust free. Mrs. Charlie Jones of Gamoca was the .first to find what was killing the men.” Mrs. Jones, according to Miss Allen, begged money along the road to pay for x-rays of the lungs of her son Shirley who asked on his deathbed to “be opened up to see if I didn’t die from the job.”

Gaunt Mrs. Charlie Jones, who bought a house and cow with $1,600 she received as compensation for the deaths of three sons who worked in the Gauley Bridge tunnel, claimed : “Shirl’s lungs was all gone when they took them out.” Later she complained: “We get two dollars a week relief, and I earn one dollar a week takin’ in washin’. That helps buy feed for the cow.”

Charlie Jones, 49, big and ruddy tunnel worker, wheezed: “The only work I could do after I left the tunnel—that was only a bit—was pickin’ bony at the tipple at the coal mine. And that’s the easiest work they is. boys’ work. I hed to give that up. Now I cain’t hardly lug a bucket of water, and that not fur. I cain’t hardly git up on a chair and haul window blinds. I give myself ’bout a year. I know I’m goin’. I’m not foolin’ myself. But there’s no use cryin’ ’bout that now, is they?”

Arthur Peyton, slick-haired young engineer who once worked in the tunnel, declared: “The men were driven into the tunnel right after the blasting. The foremen used pick handles and drilling steel to knock the Negroes on the head if they refused to enter immediately.” He asserted that the blackamoors were paid $3 a day, and that they were charged 10% for cashing their checks.

George Robinson, Negro, drawled that if a man were sick he would have to hide from the sleeping shack “rouster” to avoid being forced back into the tunnel. As to economics he testified: “By the time we bought three meals a day and a pint of moonshine the $3 was gone. The men bought the moonshine to cut the cold and dust off their lungs.”

A public health expert, Dr. Emery Roe Hayhurst of Columbus, Ohio, who had expressed indignation over working conditions at Gauley Bridge, declined to attend Congressman Marcantonio’s inquest at Washington until he knew who would pay his traveling expenses.

Old Dr. Leonidas R. Harless of Gauley Bridge refused to go to Washington because Mrs. Harless was sick and he was too busy professionally. Nonetheless he wrote that he had “warned many workers who came to me for treatment that continuous work in the tunnel would be extremely dangerous. At the same time, the whole thing has been so grossly exaggerated that the filing of the damage suits by former tunnel workers has become almost a racket.”

Union Carbide & Carbon, dragged into the Gauley Bridge affair by its toes, declared that it was “very proud of its safety record everywhere.” President P. H. Faulconer of Rinehart & Dennis asserted that “every known device to protect the workers was used and that reports of deaths were grossly exaggerated.”

Other Rinehart & Dennis officials issued statements in which they claimed that an epidemic of pneumonia, not silicosis, was responsible for scores of deaths at Gauley Bridge. They charged that damage suits were filed by some men proved not to have worked in the tunnel and by others who worked only an hour or two. According to the apologists, the death list from various diseases did not exceed 50 out of some 2,000 workers.

Engineering News-Record jumped to defend excavators everywhere by editorially calling the Gauley Bridge furore “fantastic bunk.” On the other hand, “The time has come,” declared that journal, “to bring out authoritatively all the facts of silicosis hazards.” When the inquest was petering out for lack of wind last week young Senator Rush Dew Holt of West Virginia appeared before the House Committee with a commonsense statement: “This was and is American industry’s ‘Black Hole of Calcutta.’ I have had first-hand knowledge of it for several years—despite a combine of big-business silence. Unhappily, nothing can be done now. The disease is regarded as incurable. But surely the fullest light should be thrown on this tragedy so that we may have some assurance its like will never come again.”

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