Accidents happen. In a moment of carelessness, a driver sends a text and causes a fatal crash. But when accidents happen on a major construction project involving great heights, explosives, and thousands of tons of steel and concrete, the results can be far deadlier. In years past, it was generally accepted that major projects would result in a certain number of fatalities. When work began on the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s, the general norm was one worker fatality for every million dollars spent, a death rate that would be unacceptable in our risk-adverse society today. Here’s a look at the deadliest work projects in U.S. history, some of which led to new safety standards that have saved countless lives since.
10. Willow Island Disaster (51 deaths)
This 1978 incident is widely cited as the single deadliest construction accident in U.S. history, although No. 9 on this list may have claimed a couple more lives. Workers constructing a 430-foot cooling tower at the new Pleasants Power Station in northern West Virginia were using a crane to hoist concrete when disaster struck. Working 166 feet above the ground, the crane suddenly fell toward the inside of the tower. Fifty-one workers plummeted to their deaths in an avalanche of scaffolding and concrete. An investigation found a perfect storm of errors created the tragedy: concrete from the previous day had not yet hardened, key anchor bolts needed to attach the scaffolding were missing, and contractors were on a tight schedule to finish the tower.
9. Lake Michigan Water Intake (53 deaths)
Chicago has been blessed with an abundant source of drinking water, Lake Michigan. Unfortunately, sewage and waste from slaughterhouses and other industries had contaminated the water near shore by the mid-19th century. The city found a solution, building water intakes far offshore to pump in fresh water via tunnels. Several of these tunnels had already been built by 1909, as work proceeded on another intake 1.5 miles from shore. On Jan. 20, an explosion in a storage area doomed workers to a grisly fate. Although a nearby tugboat quickly responded to the disaster, heavy ice made reaching the intake difficult. Most workers were burned beyond recognition, although some died in the lake’s icy waters. Reports at the time put the death toll at 53. While the disaster shocked the city, work on the tunnel eventually continued, and the 68th Street Crib is in use today.
8. World Trade Center Twin Towers (60 deaths)
These twin 110-story towers were the tallest in the world when they opened in 1970 and 1972. The official death toll during construction is 60 workers, although an exhaustive search for causes of death turns up no details. Some observers have expressed serious doubt about the accuracy of this figure. It has been suggested that, given the heavy use of asbestos in the towers, that 60 of the 10,000 workers who toiled on the project theoretically died as a result of exposure; thus, someone associated with the Port Authority of New York might have decided at some point to list 60 as the death toll. We’ll include this here because that figure of 60 is the “official” number … although we have our doubts.
7. Fort Peck Dam (61 deaths)
Stories have long circulated about the Hoover Dam, claiming that many people were buried in the dam as the result of accidents. That’s an urban legend, but such a fate struck workers at the Fort Peck Dam in Montana. This project, which erected a 250-foot-tall, 4-mile-long dam on the Missouri River, suffered a major failure during construction in 1938. Eight men were killed in the accident, and six bodies were never recovered, entombed forever in the dam. Fifty-three other workers were killed during construction.
6. Grand Coulee Dam (77 deaths)
Building a major dam is a huge undertaking, involving explosives, excavation, extensive concrete work, working at great heights, etc. Now imagine doing all this in the mid-20th century, before modern occupational safety standards. Washington State’s Grand Coulee Dam, built from 1933-1942, claimed the lives of 77 workers. Most died as the result of falls.
5. Hoover Dam (112 deaths)
It’s one of the most common questions asked by visitors to the Hoover Dam: How many workers died building this enormous structure? According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam, 96 workers were killed in actual construction incidents; 112 people died during the entire project. For more than a third of those, the cause of death was listed as pneumonia, brought about by exposure to carbon monoxide from vehicles and machines in the dam’s diversion tunnels. That death toll also includes site work before the dam project began. The first death occurred in 1922, when a surveyor named J.G. Tierney fell into the Colorado River and drowned. On a bizarre note, his son, Patrick Tierney, is generally credited as the last man to die on the project, drowning 13 years to the day of his father’s death.
4. Transcontinental Railroad (estimated 400 deaths)
Determining the death toll on this one involves some guesswork. This project laid more than 1,900 miles of railroad track from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Francisco Bay between 1863 and 1869. Many reports state that 1,200 or more workers perished just building the Central Pacific portion of the rail line. This appears to be based on a newspaper account in 1870 that reported “the bones of perhaps 1,200 Chinamen” were being shipped to China. Yet another newspaper account that same day reported the remains of about 50 Chinese workers were being sent home. The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum estimates at most 150 workers were killed on that stretch of railroad, consistent with other published accounts of the day. Reports of deaths of workers on the Union Pacific portion have never been found. That stretch of track was 50% longer than the CPRR portion. So a good estimate is approximately 400 workers died on the entire Transcontinental Railroad project.
3. Hawk’s Nest Tunnel (476 deaths)
This project seemed simple enough in theory: Bore a 3-mile tunnel under a West Virginia mountain to divert the New River for better hydroelectric production. Beginning in 1927, workers began tunneling under Gauley Mountain. While company officials who visited the site always wore masks to protect against silica dust, the largely African-American workforce did not understand the dangers. In the end, hundreds of Hawk’s Nest workers fell prey to silicosis, a deadly lung disease. While an official Congressional inquiry set the final death toll at 476 workers, an unknown number of the black workers returned to their homes in the South and likely perished there. Some people believe an equally great crime occurred after the fact, as victims and their families received little compensation for their suffering. On a positive note, the news coverage of the disaster led to new laws protecting workers against silica hazards. Almost a century later, the tragedy still incites anger in some circles; one West Virginian, David Pushkin, is working on a film about the disaster, Hawks Nest Tunnel: A Documentary.
2. Erie Canal (1,000-plus deaths)
This 363-mile canal had a profound impact on American history. The Erie Canal provided a waterway from the ports of New York City to the Great Lakes, helping transform New York into a major finance center while also opening the American frontier and Upper Midwest to development. More than 1,000 workers died during construction from 1817-1825. Malaria claimed the majority of lives, but other workers were killed in explosions, falls, or when sections of canal collapsed.
1. Panama Canal (5,600 deaths)
The perils in building this engineering marvel have been well documented in book and film. More than 20,000 workers died in a French-led effort to build the canal in the 1880s. When the United States took over the canal project in 1904, improvements in equipment and in sanitation made the work somewhat safer. Still, an estimated 5,600 workers died during the decade it took the U.S. to complete the canal.
One More: Interstate Highway System
It took 35 years to complete the original portion of this road network covering more than 40,000 miles. No figures on worker fatalities are available, but one would assume hundreds of workers were killed during the decades-long construction process.