Rev. Greg Kupar, left, and Rev. Nelson
jointly perform a libation rite, pouring water from
the New River.
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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.
were impressed by the monument that included a
depiction of a lone worker leaving the tunnel
engulfed in silica dust.
names of some, but not all, of the dead buried in
unmarked graves are known.
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.
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.
consecration of graves was performed jointly by Rev.
Nelson Staples, who earlier gave the Invocation, and
Rev. Greg Kupar, Summersville Presbyterian Church.
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.
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
“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
(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,
Vicky Nutter of Summersville concluded the ceremony
with a touching singing of “Amazing Grace.”
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.
they now rest in peace!
From left, Mrs. and Rev. Nelson Staples,
Charlotte Neilan, and Rev. Ronald English
joyous moment after the ceremony at Whippoorwill
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.”
Sept. 8, there were front page reports of the
dedication in the Saturday Charleston Gazette-Daily
Mail and the Beckley Register-Herald.
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.