Rev. Greg Kupar, left, and Rev. Nelson Staples, right,
jointly perform a libation rite, pouring water from the New River.

Memorial Honors Hawks Nest Tunnel Workers
- Gravesite Dedicated

Hundreds of Depression era workers died of acute silicosis from digging a tunnel for hydroelectric power through almost pure silica. These deaths were preventable.

By Charlotte and George Neilan

A moving ceremony commencing at Old Main Auditorium in Summersville on Friday, Sept. 7, honored an estimated 764 workers who died in the early 1930s from digging the Hawks Nest Tunnel to divert the New River for hydroelectric power. This is considered America’s worst industrial disaster.

Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer welcomed the audience and introduced the program participants.

Music was provided by Amy Hypes, Soloist, accompanied by Wayne Halstead, pianist.

The Invocation was by Rev. Nelson Staples, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Beckley.

Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the keynote speaker, said: “We are here today to commemorate the lives of hundreds of men who perished. We will consecrate the graves of 41 workers and honor their co-workers, as well. This is long overdue.”

Rahall said this tragedy sparked national concern and a new era of workers rights in America. “Since then, countless lives have been saved.”

“These men endured dangers for a paycheck and for their daily bread. Let us keep their stories alive so future generations do not repeat these mistakes.”

Dwight Harshbarger Ph.D, an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at West Virginia University Medical School, read excerpts from his novel “Witness at Hawks Nest.” He donated 40 copies of his award-winning book with proceeds to benefit future memorial site development and upkeep. (Note: As of press time, surprising book sales had already raised about $500.)

Nicholas Chronicle publisher, Charlotte Neilan, conceived the idea of honoring the workers. She related the story of the Jones family that probably suffered more than any other in this tragedy. Emma Jones, the mother, lost her husband, three sons, and her brother, to silicosis. Charlotte said: “The death benefits the company offered were $800 for each son, and $1,000 for her husband. If they had been black, it would have been $600 for a husband and $400 for a son.”

Charlotte asked the several Jones family descendants in the audience to stand and be recognized.

George Neilan told the audience that according to the World Health Organization there are still thousands of silicosis deaths each year around the world and an estimated 300 deaths in the United States.

He read a Sept. 6, 2012, letter from the Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, commending the Memorial Committee “…for your noble efforts to ensure that the victims of the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, near Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, are not forgotten.”

“I… express my whole-hearted support for your efforts to provide a dignified resting place for these workers, and a long over due recognition of this tragic event in our nation’s history.”

“We join you and the citizens of Summersville, WV, whose efforts made this memorial possible, in looking forward to the time when no worker suffers from silicosis, a disease that can be prevented but not cured.

In the unforgettable words of West Virginia’s own Mother Jones, I join you in “Pray[ing] for the dead and fight[ing] like hell for the living.”

Mayor Shafer then had the pleasure of introducing his daughter, Shealyn, a member of the Nicholas County High School Future Business Leaders of America club.

She described that as a club project, they helped clean the gravesite and raised about $2,000 to purchase a highway historical sign that was installed at the entrance to Whippoorwill Drive off US 19. Their project won first place in the state and sixth place nationally.

Rev. Ronald English, for about 20 years pastor of the First Baptist Church of Charleston, and who gave an eulogy at the funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., made closing remarks. He said: “We can never forget what happened at Hawks Nest.”

“Four words pivot around the purpose of our gathering: celebration, commemoration, commendation and correction.” He explained that we must celebrate the lives of those men, commemorate them, commend them for their hard work, but correct the fact that they were buried in unmarked graves.

Mayor Shafer then concluded the Old Main part of the ceremony. He invited the audience for light refreshments in the reception area, and then to proceed to the Whippoorwill Cemetery for the remainder of the ceremony.

At Whippoorwill Cemetery

This portion of the ceremony began with the unveiling of a stone monument to all tunnel workers by Memorial Committee members, Charlotte and George Neilan, and New River Community and Technical College staff members Bill Loope, Lisa DeLilly, Lisa Hatcher, Mary Igo, Karen Tully and Allen Withers.

Installation of the monument was just completed the previous day by Natural Stone Sign Company of Pickaway, WV employees. They were assisted by City of Summersville employees who operated equipment to lift the monument into place.

All were impressed by the monument that included a depiction of a lone worker leaving the tunnel engulfed in silica dust.

The names of some, but not all, of the dead buried in unmarked graves are known.

In memory of the dead workers, the known names were read by Shealyn Shafer and after each name other Future Business Leaders Of America club members, Alison Givens, Christy Hamilton, Nicole Hamilton and Courtney Taylor, took turns lighting a memorial candle. As each candle was lit, the audience said: “We will never forget you.”

Mayor Shafer said the consecration of the cemetery would include a libation ritual. Libation rituals to honor the dead are common in many cultures throughout the ages.

Our ceremony was suggested by a river water pouring rite used several years ago in dedicating unmarked graves in Mobile, Alabama. Our ceremony used water from the New River, which is fitting because the Hawks Nest Tunnel diverted the New River.

The consecration of graves was performed jointly by Rev. Nelson Staples, who earlier gave the Invocation, and Rev. Greg Kupar, Summersville Presbyterian Church.

The monument honors all the tunnel workers of all races wherever they may be buried. Thus it was appropriate that the consecration was conducted jointly by a white minister and a black minister.

The following are excerpts from their ceremony.

“We gather in the presence of God, we come to pour a libation in memory of these men lying in unmarked graves, some whose names are known only in the mind of God. We gather here in this cemetery off Whippoorwill to show these souls honor, respect, and that we in 2012 have not forgotten them. We pour this water to symbolize the power of the river, and to the memory of all the workers who dug the Hawks Nest Tunnel.


“The water we pour into the earth is a sign of our continually being reborn in faith and hope. This is water of the New River, the river these men worked to divert. It calls us to remember the dangers associated with both the tunnel construction as well as the raging power of a swollen river.


“We pour this water in honor and respect for those men who suffered and died, oftentimes far away from family and friends, often alone save for God.


“We also pour this water for those who through the decades have remembered these men, for those who have worked to bring to our attention this cemetery, and for those who have worked to restore it for future generations to remember.


“And we pour this water as a blessing, a remembrance, and as a consecration of this land as sacred, sacred to the men and to their families.”

(Pour remaining water)

Both ministers joined in pouring the remaining water.

In conclusion, “Consider this place dampened by the tears of God! Henceforth, this may be considered consecrated, Holy ground!”

Vicky Nutter of Summersville concluded the ceremony with a touching singing of “Amazing Grace.”

In addition to somber aspects, the ceremony was also festive, like a funeral parade. Rev. Staples with his booming voice led the audience in a hand- clapping hymn. Smiles of satisfaction were prevalent. People knew that they had participated in at least partially righting a decades old injustice.

May they now rest in peace!

From left, Mrs. and Rev. Nelson Staples, Charlotte Neilan, and Rev. Ronald English
share a joyous moment after the ceremony at Whippoorwill Cemetery.

Other Media Coverage of Tunnel Workers Memorial

There was extensive media coverage of the Sept. 7 dedication ceremony. By way of example, the Charleston Daily Mail on Sept. 7 had a front page article “Final rest for the forgotten.”

On Sept. 8, there were front page reports of the dedication in the Saturday Charleston Gazette-Daily Mail and the Beckley Register-Herald.

The State of West Virginia bears some responsibility for the injustices done to these workers. We thank the covering media for informing the public of the present efforts to right these decades old injustices, and honor these workers.