Hawks Nest Workers Memorial: Ceremony on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012


The Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster is considered America’s worst industrial accident. More than 700 workers died of acute silicosis while mining a 3.8- mile tunnel for a hydroelectric plant through Gauley Mountain in 1930-31. Workers were primarily migrant workers, mostly black and paid a few dollars per day. When they became sick, many were driven out of the camps to die elsewhere. Those African Americans who died in the camps could not be buried locally in view of the Jim Crow laws of that era. A few blacks were sent home by rail. An undertaker from Summersville, about 40 miles north of the tunnel, was summoned to take the bodies away. He buried a few in a small slave cemetery in Summersville but the bodies kept mounting and he ran out of room. So he buried the approximately 48 victims on his family farm in the dark of night - where they remained for 40 years.


When US Route 19 was widened in 1972, the bodies had to be moved. The Department of Highways notified a local undertaker, the son of the original undertaker, who reinterred them a few miles south of the original site. The bodies are now near the Summersville Lake off US 19, by Whippoorwill Road – where they have remained for another 40 years.


In June, 2009, the local Historical Society, with the backing of former West Virginia Senator Randy White, submitted a grant application for funds for a workers’ memorial. Charlotte and George Neilan prepared the application.


A Governor’s Community Participation Grant of $10,000 was received. There were a few other smaller grants.


The grave site was covered with brush and trash. Old appliances, tires and debris had been dumped on the land. Saplings grew out of the graves. Clearing the site became the first priority.


A permit was obtained by the Division of Highways to clear the site and install a marker on state land.


With Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer’s authorization, City workers cleared trash and cut brush. A local Nicholas County High School organization, the Future Business Leaders of America, not only helped clean the site, they entered and won first place in state competition and placed in the national competition finals with their project, “Hawks Nest.” They held fundraisers to obtain a state historical marker which was erected nearby.


The WV National Guard graded and enlarged the parking area. Southern West Virginia Paving Company donated labor and materials for the parking lot. A monument, with the victims names, will be placed near the graves


After many delays, the project is finally coming to completion. On September 7, 2012 there will be a ceremony at Old Main, followed by a dedication of Whippoorwill Cemetery, honoring all Hawks Nest tunnel workers who have died. We will recognize not only these buried locally, but the hundreds of other victims throughout the nation.


While in the past there was shame regarding the secret graves - there is now pride in righting the wrong.