RIGHTING A WRONG
by Charlotte Yeager Neilan


Victims of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Tragedy number into the hundreds. What has compounded the victim's plight is that most people have no idea where they are buried. Even their family members do not know where they are buried. The carnage occurred back in the early 1930's at the height of the Great Depression. Most of the men were migrants from the south who heard through newspaper ads that there was money to be made in the hills of West Virginia. Desperate for a job, they hopped freight trains or hitchhiked to the mountains. Some were immigrants. Most were men who had "no voice." They were vulnerable - prey to the wealthy industrialists who considered them expendable. They left families, promising them they would return with money and build a better life. What they got was death; an agonizing, tortured illness called silicosis, from digging in the 3.8 mile tunnel to build a hydroelectric plant. Since they wore no protective masks, they breathed in tiny glass particles which pulverized their lungs. Within months, most were dead. A few were sent home to their families, but most were buried in unmarked graves in places like Vanetta and Gamoca near Gauley Bridge. Many were brought North and nine were buried at the old Lewis Cemetery (a former slave cemetery) in Summersville, but space soon ran out and the remaining were put in the undertaker's family farm field. When U.S. Rt. 19 was widened in 1972, the bodies were reinterred further south off Whipporrwill Drive. There was no identification of the bodies. They were placed in child-sized coffins since they had decomposed and did not take up much space. They were buried in the ground with unmarked metal markers on top. Over the years, the cemetery became a dumping ground for old refrigerators, tires, waste from work sites and even a depository for road kill. We feel there must be a way for families to know what happened to their loved ones so long ago. Why Grandpa Frank Woods never came home. Whatever happened to Uncle Grover McKeever? Where could they be today? It is our hope that we might bring closure and peace to many fragmented families. We offer them a place to grieve and knowledge that their loved one is in a maintained, sanctified grave in the beautiful hills of West Virginia.

The list of these 40 tunnel workers includes two women who worked in the camps. In addition, there are seven workers who were buried in the old Lewis Cemetery in Summersville. These workers names are also known but are not included on this list, since they are not at Whippoorwill. The Lewis Cemetery is an old slave cemetery and close to private land in Summersville. It was here where the first bodies were brought in, but the undertaker soon ran out of space and took the rest to his family farm where they remained for the next 40 years. For another 40 years - they have been at Whippoorwill.

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