Joe Lewis

Joe with Stewart’s paddle, 2011.

The site of the greatest industrial disaster in the history of the United States occurred two linear miles from where I sit right now between the years 1930 and 1933. I’m speaking, of course, about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, during the construction of which the blatant disregard for worker safety caused the deaths of—officially—476 men. Unofficially, sources believe that number may be higher than 1000. 

Like a rock in a river produces an eddy behind it, such an event cannot exist without its own swirl of stories. They ripple outward through time to become legends. We recite their history to our customers in rafts on the mighty New River. We regale our friends with them around campfires. We whisper them in the night to our children… and in some cases they to theirs.

But there exists one story about the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel that has never to my knowledge been told, at least not in writing. Why? I don’t know. It may be that the more dire tales of death surrounding the Tunnel eclipsed it in any number of ways. I, however, prefer to think that this story remained untold for so long, simply because there are so few details available. (Its characters are all long dead, so you are now getting it third hand.) I know that’s why I haven’t written it down until now: because it seemed so tricky to tell.

But today, the man who told it to me lies dying in a hospice bed, and I think… I think I’ll give it a shot.

“My dad loved the outdoors,” says Joe Lewis, his voice a bit raspy, his demeanor a bit distant, like he’s trying to imagine a memory he never had—and I suppose that’s accurate. The memory is after all his father’s, not his. Joe himself didn’t hear the story until after Stewart Lewis’ death in 1953. “He loved the rivers and the waters, and he and I spent a lot of time together when I was young doing those things.”

Stewart Lewis was an adventurer when the world was still full to overflowing with real adventure. These were the days before Gore-Tex and plastic; when the initials GPS were as likely to stand for Good Pack of Smokes. They were also, notably, the days before one could purchase a kayak from a store, so Stewart crafted his own from wood and canvas.

Joe Lewis

Joe Lewis, circa 1949.

“He made one just my size when I was about eight,” recalls Joe. Joe and I and Joe’s own son, Brent, are sitting in a conference room where I work. In an odd way, I’m working on a ghost story—Joe’s interview is for a book I’ll never write. We’re warm in here, despite a cold February outside. It’s early evening—that perfect time of day when the edges of shadows appear sharper. Rectangles of light from the windows are climbing higher up the walls as the sun gets lower. Soon, like everything in this world, they’ll simply disappear. Tomorrow, new light will take their place, but it will be ever-so-slightly, imperceptibly different. It’s fitting, this long light. Ghost stories thrive in such conditions. They need them like a tree needs loam. This isn’t a ghost story in the traditional sense, but maybe it doesn’t need to be one.

Joe continues to paint a verbal picture for me. The year is (probably, Joe thinks) 1945. He and Stewart are on the Gauley River, or the New, or maybe it’s the Greenbrier, floating in their kayaks past shoaly ripples, tossing bait on lines and wrestling in smallies or musky or trout. It is obvious from his tone how much he looked up to Stewart. Maybe almost as much as Brent looks up to him, which is, in this room watching his face as Brent listens to Joe speak, another utterly obvious fact.

Stewart was a Marine toward the end of World War II, Joe tells us. “He wanted to join up,” he says, “and he went to the doctor in Oak Hill for the physical, but his little toe was crooked.” Joe gestures to his own foot to illustrate the point. Patiently, the doctor explained that Stewart could not become a Marine with such a deformity. Despondent, Stewart left the doctor’s office, resigned to not serving in the military with his generation—the greatest. But then a thought occurred to him. “He went to another doctor’s office,” says Joe, a smile blooming across his face in the shadows, “and he said to the doctor, ‘Cut it off,’ which they did. And after that, they let him in.” Stewart spent the rest of the war stationed in Florida, riding in dirigibles looking for enemy submarines.

Stewart Lewis

Stewart, circa 1945.

After the war, Stewart returned home and promptly picked up where he left off, running West Virginia rivers and adventuring with Joe, sometimes in their kayaks, sometimes in canoes. Joe shows me Stewart’s old canoe paddle. It is the very definition of old. The tip of its blade is painted ocean blue, and the names of people and bodies of water, the significance of which can only be guessed at, are hand etched in the varnished wood. It has a piece of string tied around the shaft under the T-grip that is itself probably older than Brent and I put together.

Perhaps it’s fitting, I think, that Stewart perished on an adventure with his son at his side. “It happened in Miami, Florida” says Joe. “He and I had gone down for a vacation,” a multi-day cruise on a friend’s sailboat.

“We were anchored for the night in Biscayne Bay,” Joe continues, “and the wind came up. We had a small wooden dinghy that came loose.” The tiny boat began to float away, but Stewart knew himself to be strong in the water, so he leapt in to swim after it. “It was a high sea going away from the boat, but he jumped in thinking he could catch up to it. He wasn’t able to.”

They raised anchor and went after Stewart. “He was still above the water when we got to him, and I jumped in and kind of held on to him. We got him on the boat, but… he died from that. He drowned, or it might have been a heart attack.”

“I was very thankful for that,” says Joe. “The alternative… to not find him… would have been horrible.”

At Stewart’s funeral back in Oak Hill, WV, an old friend of his approached Joe and began to talk river running. “I don’t remember if I knew him or not,” says Joe, “but I remember being kind of surprised that he had gone canoeing with my dad.”

In 1933 the surviving workers of the Hawk’s Nest Disaster completed their work on the Tunnel, the purpose of which was to divert water from the New River, through a mountain and back to the watershed by way of a hydro-electric power plant. The man told Joe about a time when the tunnel was completed, but before the power plant was operational. Water flowed freely about a foot deep through the man-made cavern, where hundreds of men had only recently contracted acute silicosis and signed their death warrants.

“He said my dad knew… somebody over there, and he got permission to canoe through the Tunnel. He needed somebody to go with him, and he had talked his friend into coming. And they did it.” Some of the men killed were likely still alive at the time. The extent of the disaster was still unknown to the general public.

And that’s about it. I warned you when we began that this story was shy of details. I can’t tell you about their journey, because nobody knows. I can’t tell you they paddled hard to get through it as quickly as possible. I don’t know what they wore or what they used for light or how long it took. Did they capsize at all? Did their imaginations create illusions in the dark? Did echoes sound like the cries of ghosts?

Of course, I also said this story would be tricky to tell, and it wasn’t. Because while I’d love it if you went on to tell people about Stewart Lewis and his unknown friend, the only men to ever paddle the buried New River—that’s not what the story is about.

This story is about fathers and their children and their adventures together. And while it’s main character is undoubtedly Stewart Lewis, this story is really about Joe and Brent. I hope I’ve managed to hit the Publish button while Joe still lives and while he’s lucid enough to hear Brent read it to him. But mostly, I just hope the point—that relationships between fathers and children are complex… and none the less magical—has been made.