Colridge was Kenridge: And Rinehart's gold left a mixed legacy

While Colridge estate has most recently been the site of bitter feuding between Kappa Sigma "brothers," its origins are in a father's love for his sons. That father: Hollis Rinehart Sr., a turn-of-the-century Charlottesville scion whose complex history includes some of this area's most notable structures. A less happy legacy is a West Virginia tunnel where hundreds of migrant workers died, many of them buried unnamed in a mass grave.

One need only walk the Downtown Mall to see evidence of Rinehart's local impact. In addition to the four Ivy Road estates he built for himself and his sons, he built both the Paramount Theater in 1931, and one block away, the Mall's only "skyscraper," the National Bank building, which now houses Wachovia Bank's regional headquarters.

Born in 1871 near Roanoke in Botetourt County, Rinehart, son of a successful railroad contractor, married Fluvanna-born Lena Thomas in 1893. But the small-town boy had big-town dreams, says his now-77-year-old grandson Rodger Rinehart Jr.

"He told my grandmother he was going away, and he wouldn't be back until he had $10,000 in the bank," laughs Rodger. While $10,000 was nothing to sneeze at in the late 19th century, it was mere pennies compared to the fortune Rinehart eventually amassed in the early part of the 20th century.

For several years, Rodger says, Hollis would go to Washington and bid on jobs to carry water on the railroad tracks for construction projects up and down the East Coast.

But in the days before air conditioning, "it got hot up there," says Rodger, so his grandparents rented Birdwood, the Ivy Road estate built by gentleman farmer William Garth between 1819 and 1830.

"They loved it so," says Rodger, "that my grandfather bought it." There, Hollis and Lena raised their four boys: Hollis Jr., Jack, Rodger, and William Alonza.

Having settled in Charlottesville, Hollis started Rinehart Dennis Construction in the early years of the 20th century with partner P.F. Faulconer (who also founded Faulconer Construction). The company thrived and won high-dollar government contracts during WWI.

When the Rinehart boys were grown, says Rodger, Hollis decided to build homes for his sons across the street from Birdwood so the family could continue to live close to one another. Between 1921 and 1924, construction began on the four sprawling estates.

For himself, Hollis built "Kenridge," which a subsequent owner called "Colridge" and which later became the Kappa Sigma headquarters; for his son William, he built "Boxwood," which became best known for housing the Institute for Textile Technology, now a lab and electronics division of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO); Jack Sr.'s unnamed home was demolished in the early '80s to make way for the structure now occupied by the Legal Research Center; and Rodger's father, Rodger Sr., took up residence in "White Gables."

White Gables, says Hollis' great-grandson and local developer Randy Rinehart, was built in 1922 for $22,000. Recalling documents he once perused, Randy says White Gables was built by a contractor from Staunton who'd come over four or five days a week, using "mules and dragpans" to excavate the foundation. (It sold in 2003 for $2.85 million and is now being developed into 76 luxury condos.)

For the remaining local members of the Rinehart clan– and there are many– a drive down Ivy Road is a trip down memory lane.

"That house brings back many memories of being there every Sunday for lunch," Randy says of Kenridge. "I was fortunate enough to have memories of running around the house playing, taking the elevator up and down. That was neat."

Though Hollis Sr. died in 1943, three years before Randy's birth, Randy's older brother Jack, now 70, has memories of his grandfather's mansion.

"It was certainly the focal point of our family all during the '30s, '40s and early '50s," he says. His grandfather, he reports, was a "big tall powerful looking man." But he had a soft side. "I remember sitting on his lap," he recalls. "I was nine; he used to hand out white peppermints from his pocket."

Rodger, the oldest living grandchild, has perhaps the most specific memories of his grandparents' home.

"We spent a lot of time at Kenridge," he says, recalling riding ponies and swimming in the pool– "one of the first pools in the area."

Pools in the '20s and '30s were not the filtered, chlorinated marvels they've become. "They filled it once a month," says Rodger. "By the end of the month, it was so black you couldn't see anything when you dove in. We all had ear trouble by August."

But though the remaining Rineharts remember only an idyllic Charlottesville childhood with a doting grandfather, Hollis Sr. was dealing with issues far more disturbing and complex than pony rides and dips in a pool.

In 1930, Rinehart Dennis Construction won a contract from a Union Carbide subsidiary to drill a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain as part of a hydroelectric project that would reroute the New River in West Virginia.

When the company first advertised for workers, thousands of the most destitute men in the country– migrant workers and African Americans from the deep South– traveled great distances for the chance to earn money to feed their families, according to Jennifer Jordan in the West Virginia Historical Society Quarterly.

Many workers would never go home.

Dubbed the Hawk's Nest tunnel, the project still stands as an engineering marvel, along with other Depression-era projects like the Hoover Dam. But it also stands as one of the greatest industrial disasters of the 20th century.

That mining is a dangerous occupation has never been disputed. But it wasn't industrial accidents that took the most lives at Hawk's Nest; it was an insidious disease.

As the Cowboy Junkies famously sang: "Two years and the silicosis takes hold, and I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold."

While the Hawk's Nest workers weren't digging for gold, in less than two years, hundreds of them had succumbed to silicosis, with some estimates putting the mortality figure as high as 2,000. (By contrast, during the five years of construction on Colorado's Hoover Dam, from 1930-35, there were officially 96 industrial fatalities.)

Hawk's Nest victims and their families filed nearly 500 lawsuits totaling $4 million against the Union Carbide subsidiary and Rinehart Dennis, which ended up bearing legal responsibility for the disaster.

But perhaps even more horrifying than just the deaths was an alleged cover-up, as Martin Cherniak writes in his 1986 book The Hawk's Nest Incident.

 According to Cherniak, "It was alleged that Rinehart and Dennis had paid a large sum of money to Hadley C. White, an undertaker from Nicholas County, to dispose of an undetermined number of unclaimed corpses of workers who had died on the job. The burials, so the story went, were carried out in great haste and with no medical evaluation."

That allegation, however horrifying, could not be verified in court– in fact, Cherniak reveals that many of the so-called "facts" of the case were misunderstandings or exaggerations.

For instance, the figure of 476 deaths was inadvertently made by a witness who added the number of men whose lungs had been x-rayed to the alleged number of victims buried in the mass grave. That figure stuck.

Though industrial safety standards were virtually non-existent in the early years of the 20th century, even then the risks of inhaling silica dust were known. But acute silicosis, the disease that killed so many of the tunnel workers, was not recognized officially by the American Medical Association until after the Hawk's Nest incident.

Was Rinehart Dennis responsible for the tragedy?

Cherniak says that if the New Kanawha Power Company, the Union Carbide subsidiary which subcontracted the work to Rinehart Dennis, was aware of the risks of silicosis, it likely kept mum.

"It is well established that neither the staff of Rinehart and Dennis, nor its workers wore respirators," he writes, suggesting they themselves were exposed to the risk and were therefore probably unaware of the danger.

But the question of the company's guilt never went to a jury. After the State Department of Mining began its investigation, Rinehart Dennis settled with the victims and their families for $130,000– three percent of the amount originally sought. The company finished the project and kept a lower profile from that point on. In fact, writes Cherniak, Hawk's Nest essentially marked the end of Rinehart Dennis.

"The company would never again compete for a major project," he wrote. "Within five years, its assets were largely liquidated, its successors being purely local firms in Charlottesville."

While history may remember Rinehart Dennis for Hawk's Nest, the surviving members of the Rinehart family say the tragedy is not a topic of conversation.

"We were just children then," says Rodger. "The only thing I know about that is it was the first lawsuit of its type."

Rinehart Dennis, he says, "had subbed out that part of the drilling to local people" and didn't know the danger they were in.

And as Randy points out, Hollis Sr. and the rest of the Rinehart family have left their marks– from Farmington's Kenridge Golf Tournament to the Paramount Theater to the landmark water tower at Birdwood– in positive local ways that will endure for years.

"I'm very proud of my grandfather and father and uncles," says Randy, "who have made such an impact on Charlottesville so quietly."

Hollis Rinehart

Scholar says family didn't know about tunnel's fatal danger



Read more on: Kappa Sigma