Restoration begins on unkempt Hawks Nest workers’ cemetery
By George and Charlotte Neilan

It 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 of Summersville.

The 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.

Thomas 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.