begins on unkempt Hawks Nest workers’ cemetery
By George and Charlotte Neilan
wasn’t an easy death. It was reported that one of the dying
workers struggled so hard to breathe that he kicked out the
wooden slats that held up the mattress on his bed.
He, along with hundreds of other Hawks Nest tunnel workers,
died of silicosis, an acute respiratory disease, caused by
breathing the tunnel’s foul air. The nearly 3.8 mile long
tunnel was constructed in the early 1930s to supply
hydroelectric power to a subsidiary of Union Carbide
Corporation. Construction was contracted to Rinehart and
Dennis of Richmond, Virginia.
In some places the air contained almost pure silica, filling
the workers lungs with glass.
This took place near Gauley Bridge and is considered the
nation’s worst industrial disaster. Many of the deceased
victims were black and since there was no black cemetery for
them near the tunnel site, they were quietly transported to
Summersville at night by an undertaker and buried in
unmarked graves on a farm.
These remains were disinterred about 1972 when US Route 19
was widened and the mostly African American workers were
reburied at another site located off US Route 19 just south
Nicholas County Historical and Genealogical Society on
September 4, was awarded a Governor’s Community
Participation Grant award of $10,000 to install a marker in
memory of the workers who died in the Hawks Nest disaster.
The Historical Society decided that the site must be made
presentable before installing a monument and directing
people to the site. At that time, there was trash on the
ground and saplings growing out of graves.
Now work has commenced to restore the abandoned cemetery. On
December 17, 2009, Summersville city workers, Joey Groves,
Gus Rader, Allen Shaver and Mike Lucas removed trash
accumulated over many years from the site. The following day
they began removing fallen trees and cutting down the
saplings. Work was interrupted by a blizzard but will resume
when weather permits after the holidays.
Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer , who authorized the site
restoration as a community service, said, “Recognition of
the sufferings of these workers is long overdue. We think
it’s important for the city to collaborate with groups that
work to make a difference in our community.”
Nicholas Chronicle staff found a 1972 deed to the Department
of Highways for a “Reinterment Site.” Several meetings were
held with Nathan Thomas of the Lewisburg DOH office, and it
was suggested in view of their ownership of the site, that
DOH should have some responsibility for the cemetery. These
meetings were arranged and attended by Steve Pilato,
Regional Representative for Governor Manchin.
marked the four corners of the almost 0.4 acre burial site.
He also arranged for the DOH to issue a permit enabling the
City of Summersville onto the site for cleanup and for
placement of a monument on their land.
The Society expresses heartfelt thanks to Messrs. Thomas and
Pilato for their help.
Art Yagel of the Division of Forestry was consulted about
what to do to the site. Yagel suggested that a conservative
approach would be to cut at ground level everything one inch
diameter or less and then reassess what else to remove. He
cautioned that some of the hemlock trees were infested with
a small, aphidlike insect called the Hemlock Wooly Adegid,
which is fatal to the tree but treatable if done soon.
The Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster deserves recognition because
it was, in retrospect, a milestone in labor history. It
resulted in a Congressional investigation, a 1936 National
Conference on Silicosis, and improved working conditions in
many industries that have benefited millions of workers who
came after them.
The Historical Society will soon consider designs for the
monument and what information should be included.
A tentative dedication date is set for next Summer.
The memorial is a much deserved expression of our respect
and sorrow for the lives lost in the Hawks Nest Tunnel
disaster. It is dedicated to those who died and to the
families who have never had a proper place for mourning. We
intend to provide a sanctuary where all can come to honor
these long forgotten men.