Hawks Nest tunnel workers' gravesite consecrated
SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. -- The Hawks Nest Memorial Committee dedicated a monument at the Whippoorwill Cemetery just outside Summersville Friday afternoon to consecrate the graves of 41 black workers who bored a tunnel through pure silica between March 1930 and December 1931.
Charlotte Yeager Neilan, publisher of "The Nicholas Chronicle" and her husband, George, organized a local committee to honor and preserve the graves of the victims of silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by breathing in silica dust.
A special ceremony was held at the historic Nicholas Old Main Auditorium, located on a hill near downtown Summersville.
"We are here today to commemorate the lives of hundreds of men who perished," Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the keynote speaker, said to more than 100 people gathered in the auditorium. "We will consecrate the graves of 41 workers and honor their co-workers, as well. This is long overdue."
The Hawks Nest tragedy, Rahall said, "sparked national concern and a new era of workers' rights in America. Since then, countless lives have been saved."
About 5,000 people worked to build a tunnel through 3.8 miles of nearly pure silica to divert the New River, making it flow through the tunnel to generate hydroelectric power for Union Carbide's plant in Alloy, later operated by Elkem Metals.
At least 764 of the 1,213 men who worked underground at Hawks Nest for at least two months died within five years of the tunnel's completion in 1931, according to "The Hawk's Nest Incident: America's Worst Industrial Disaster," which was published in 1986 by Yale University professor Martin Cherniack.
Rahall criticized the company for its "failure to provide proper ventilation and a callous disregard for its workers.
"We'd like to think this could never recur in our land," he said, "but today, we are haunted by another tragedy with an eerie similarity."
Rahall was referring to 29 coal miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010.
"America has come a long way, but not far enough," added Rahall, who praised the work of the Neilans in restoring the local cemetery.
Dwight Harshbarger, an adjunct professor of social and behavioral sciences at West Virginia University, spoke and read passages from his novel, "Witness at Hawks Nest," which was published in 2009.
"Over 5,000 men worked in that tunnel -- 3,000 of whom worked underground," Harshbarger said. "There were at least 764 dead, but it could be double that number."
Shirley Jones, a real person, was a main character in Harshbarger's novel.
Jones "went to work when he turned 17," the author said. "At age 18, he was dead."
Lying on his deathbed in the novel, Jones told a close friend, "After I am dead, have them open me up to see if the dust killed me."
Shirley's parents, Emma and Charles Jones, lived in Gamoca, Fayette County.
Charlotte Neilan told those in attendance that silicosis also claimed Charles' life and the lives of Emma's brother, Johnson, and her two other sons: Cecil, 23, and Owen, 21.
"The death benefits the company offered were $800 for each son and $1,000 for her husband," she said. "If they had been black, it would have been $600 for a husband and $400 for a son."
George Neilan told the audience, "The World Health Organization said silicosis still causes thousands of deaths around the world every year, and 300 in the United States.
"In honoring these men today, we wish to see silicosis eliminated."
Shealyn Shafer made restoring the Whippoorwill Cemetery a school project. She is the daughter of Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer, who hosted Friday's event.
Shealyn Shafer, a president of the Future Business Leaders of America at Nicholas County High School, led members of her group in lighting 41 memorial candles at the Whippoorwill Cemetery on Friday afternoon.
The Rev. Ronald English, a black minister in Charleston for 20 years who once worked with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said, "We can never forget what happened at Hawks Nest.
"Today, we are identifying the place [where 41 workers are buried], and we hallow the ground."
Three granddaughters of Emma and Charles Jones attended Friday's ceremonies: Tammy Jones Miles, Rita Jones Hanshaw and Anita Jones Cecil, along with their mother, Ruth Jones.
Together, they did a lot of research to document the names of the 41 black victims buried in the Whippoorwill Cemetery, as well as many other victims of the Hawks Nest tunnel project.
After the Hawks Nest tragedy, Anita Cecil said, Union Carbide officials tried to deflect attention from silicosis.
"Back then, they called it 'tunnelitis' or they tried to blame deaths on a worker's lifestyle," Cecil said. "Some company officials said workers had tuberculosis, in order to get around the idea they died from breathing dust."
The program for Friday's ceremony included a quote from a February 1936 U.S. congressional subcommittee report: "If by their suffering and death they will have made life safer in the future for men who go beneath the earth to work, if they will have been able to establish a new and greater regard for human life in industry, their suffering may not have been in vain."
Most of the tunnel workers came to work at Hawks Nest from other parts of the country. About 75 percent of them were black.
The workers whose graves were consecrated Friday could not be buried in Fayette County cemeteries with white people. At the time, Jim Crow laws were still in effect there.
The West Virginia Army National Guard also helped restore the Whippoorwill Cemetery and add new parking spaces.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.