Workers Memorial Planning Session Held
By Charlotte and George Neilan
America’s worst industrial disaster, hundreds of workers
died of acute silicosis in the early 1930s from construction
of a hydroelectric tunnel at Hawks Nest near Gauley Bridge.
An information gathering and planning meeting was held on
July 15 to discuss a planned Hawks Nest Workers memorial to
honor the memory of these mostly forgotten and ignored
The meeting was held at Hawks Nest State Park in the main
lodge. The lodge appropriately overlooks the hydroelectric
tunnel site where workers in some areas of the tunnel
drilled through almost pure silica.
These Depression era workers were mostly migrant men lured
to Gauley Bridge in search of steady work. About 25 % were
white and the remaining 75% were predominantly
The meeting was organized by representatives of the Nicholas
County Historical and Genealogical Society, the Beckley
Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and New
River Community and Technical College. About 40 interested
persons attended including several relatives of workers.
William J. Loope, Vice President of Institutional
Advancement and Workforce Education at New River, welcomed
the audience and made introductions. Introductions included
Paul Gonzales of Rep. Nick J. Rahall’s office, Summersville
Mayor Robert Shafer, whose workers are clearing an unkempt
cemetery off U. S. Route 19, Nicholas County Commissioner
Birl O’Dell, and Patricia Spangler of Fayette County, author
of “The Hawks Nest Tunnel.”
Richard Hartman, a historian from Charleston, spoke about
some African-American workers being initially buried in
unmarked graves in a cornfield in Summersville in the 1930s.
These bodies were removed when U.S. 19 was widened in 1971,
and reburied several miles away. After considerable research
in courthouse and Department of Highways records, and with
help from David Smith of Summersville, the unkempt reburial
site was located. Hartman said these workers were treated
poorly in life and death, and they should be remembered with
a fitting memorial.
Loope said he wanted to specially recognize Charlotte and
George Neilan of Summersville as the initiators of this
Neilan then spoke about the social injustice surrounding the
workers tragic deaths and secret burials. Neilan said, after
moving to Summersville, she was told by a prominent banker
that there were black Hawks Nest workers buried in the area,
but this was hushed up. That was news to her because she did
not recall America’s worst industrial accident being
mentioned in her West Virginia history books. She started
researching this periodically. Then David Smith showed her
the reburial site he and Hartman had found.
She was appalled. There were unmarked sunken areas, saplings
and brush growing out of graves, and trash strewn about. She
almost sat down and cried. “This was not right! These poor
workers who lived short, hard lives and who died in great
pain were then treated no better in death. It is an
injustice that needs to be righted.” She continued: “We now
need to try and find their families and give them closure.
We need to give the workers recognition and dignity by
creating a memorial to those workers of all races who died
here and across the nation. We will turn this sad place into
a place of repose and beauty.”
Mary Igo, a lifelong resident of Nicholas County and an
employee of New River, explained that not only was the
disaster kept secret when it happened, but it is also a
relatively hidden event even today. She also noted the site
of the reburial has had many abuses over the years, and it
is time that it be dignified as a final resting place of
hard working Americans.
Another speaker, Dr. William M. White of Mountain State
University, said that Mountain State University wants to
become involved and will play a prominent role as this
project goes forward. One way they will be involved is via a
strong graduate school with students looking for research
Lisa DeLilly of New River said the Beckley Alumnae Chapter
of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority supports the project, and will
seek participation by other Chapters. The Sorority has over
200,000 members worldwide.
Davis, a reporter with The Atlanta Journal Constitution,
spent two days in the area doing research for a story on the
Hawks Nest disaster. He said he will try to reach relatives
of workers who may have left Georgia and other southern
states to work on the tunnel. Probably some of these workers
were never heard from again. Davis invited anyone with
information for him to call him at 404 556-7074, or e-mail
at firstname.lastname@example.org The audience applauded Mark for coming
here from Atlanta and for his interest.
Lisa Hatcher of New River facilitated a group discussion
session. She divided the audience into four groups. The
groups were asked to brainstorm and make suggestions on the
topics of how to locate descendants of disaster victims or
other interested parties, how to honor all the victims, the
time and format of a memorial dedication, what other
organizations should be invited to join the project and
their roles. Hatcher will have the suggestions compiled and
sent to the audience.
There was a strong consensus in the audience that this is a
meritorious project worthy of their participation.
To participate or to provide information, please contact
Charlotte Neilan at 800 640-5807, or email@example.com.