First established as a State Park in 1935, the importance of Hawks Nest dates back to well before West Virginia became a state. Taking its name from the ospreys (also known as “fish hawks”) that are a common sight on nearby cliffs, the area was first called Marshall’s Pillar when it was frequented in the early 1800s by John Marshall, then fourth Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Decades later, the area bore witness to several Civil War skirmishes involving Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Henry Wise. In the 1920s, a nearby tunnel and dam were built to supply power for corporate chemical giant Union Carbide’s plant in Alloy. Finally in 1935, the state of West Virginia bought the surrounding land to build a state park. The Civilian Conservation Corps built several of the structures in the park including a scenic overlook and museum, which draw thousands of visitors annually to this day.
Chief Justice John Marshall visited this region along the Kanawha River in the early 1800s, and was so impressed by the views that the area became known as “Marshall’s Pillars.” By the time the Civil War broke out, the area was simply known as Hawks Nest Rock--so named for the ospreys, often referred to as fish hawks, that frequent the area. The Gauley River was an important transportation route during the Civil War and skirmishes broke out in the area for control of this vital supply line. Confederate General (and former Virginia governor) Henry Wise established camps on the nearby heights, which provided good views for pickets of any approaching enemies. Later, Union troops consolidated control over the area and pushed out the Confederates. Their camp nearby was the sometime home of future president Rutherford B. Hayes and the 23rd Ohio Infantry.
On March 30, 1930, a contract was awarded to Rinehart and Dennis Corporation of Charlottesville, Virginia to build the tunnel and dam nearby. They had exactly two years from that date to get it finished. The tunnel, three miles long, would divert water through Gauley Mountain and supply power to the new metallurgic plant then being built in Alloy. It was drilled directly through high grade silica rock. With such a short window in which to complete the project, Rinehart and Dennis often ignored safety protocols and took shortcuts, resulting in a lack of safety equipment for the workers. And workers were not in short supply: even as many fell ill from the copious dust in the mine, more stepped forward to take their place, as the Great Depression had deprived many American men of employment.
Using a dry drilling technique instead of wetting down the rock to reduce dust--a technique already well-known at the time-- produced such large amounts of silica dust that many miners were too ill to work within fifteen weeks of starting. A Congressional hearing eventually attributed 476 deaths. A study published by epidemiologist Martin Cherniack in 1986 estimates the total to be 764.
In 1935, the state of West Virginia bought the land around the dam and the tunnel to build a state park. The area includes cliffs, streams, and a lake. The lake was formed by the damming of the river in 1934. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) performed the work of transforming the area near Gauley Bridge, blighted for years by the Tunnel tragedy, into a State Park. The CCC was considered one of Franklin Roosevelt’s greatest New Deal programs, often shaping national and state parks programs in ways that survive to this day. For example, the CCC planted more than 3 billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks across the country. The CCC built several of the stone buildings featured in the park. The park museum, main overlook visitor complex, picnic shelters, and even the unique round tower shaped restrooms were built by CCC workers. The museum has a glassed observation room that offers a view of the gorge.
In 1939, after the park had been completed, it was included in a state guide written by the Works Progress Administration--which, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal employment relief programs, was writing visitors’ guides for all (then) forty-eight states. Called West Virginia: Guide to the Mountain State, its publication was held up by then-Governor Homer Holt, who insisted that it was “propaganda” for its frank admission of labor troubles during the Miner’s March of 1921 and the Hawks Nest Tunnel tragedy. Holt had been the state’s Attorney General during the Hawks Nest affair, and had stalwartly backed Union Carbide throughout the proceedings. He later served as a lawyer for Union Carbide after his governorship. Holt’s battle with the WPA lasted his entire tenure in office and nearly killed federal funding for the guide; finally, the WPA was able to publish the book intact after Governor M.M. Neely was elected in 1941.
The Department of Natural Resources took control of the property in 1963. A four-story lodge was built shortly after, designed by Walter Gropius’ architectural firm. Gropius was a world-renowned architect whose works remain influential to this day. He also designed, among many other structures, the Huntington Museum of Art and John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building in Boston. The lodge contains 31 rooms while the restaurant features a wide, two-story window wall that faces the gorge.
The park features seven different hiking trails of varying distance and difficulty. A golf course within the park began operation in 1999 until a budget deficit resulted in its closure in 2013. The park’s famous views and rich history, along with its close proximity to the perennially popular New River Gorge, draws thousands of visitors annually.