Hawks Nest Workers Memorial Planning Session Held
By Charlotte and George Neilan

In 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 workers.

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 African-Americans.

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 memorial project.

Charlotte 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 projects.

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.

Mark 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 mrdavis@ajc.com 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 publisher@nicholaschronicle.com.