Workers constructing the Hawks Nest tunnel in the early 1930s. Hundreds died from digging through the silica which caused a deadly respiratory disease.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Hawks Nest Memorial Committee will hold a ceremony on Friday to consecrate the Whippoorwill Grave Sites, near Summersville, where at least 41 silicosis victims who worked on the Hawks Nest tunnel are buried.
Charlotte Neilan said, "We are just so relieved to finally hold a ceremony for them. It is so sad they have never been mourned," said Charlotte Neilan, publisher of the Nicholas Chronicle newspaper. "They never had anyone visit their graves. We are going to do that.
"We have also put a little monument out there and a fence," Neilan said. "We have steps going up to the cemetery site, since it is up on a rise."
Neilan and her husband, George, have helped coordinate ongoing, long-term efforts to restore graveyards where Hawks Nest victims are buried.
Between March 1930 and December 1931, workers bored through 3.8 miles of nearly pure silica to divert the New River through a tunnel to generate hydroelectric power for Union Carbide's plant in Alloy, long operated by Elkem Metals.
Within five years, at least 764 of the Hawks Nest tunnel workers died from acute silicosis, a respiratory disease caused by inhaling silica dust. Many died while they were still on their six-day-a-week, 10-hour-a-day jobs.
Many workers were buried in unmarked graves, including a cornfield outside Summersville, after their bodies were hauled away from the tunnel area.
The bodies of Hawks Nest victims in the Whippoorwill graves today were moved from their earlier burial area in 1972, when U.S. 19 was being widened.
Most of the tunnel workers, about 75 percent of whom were African-Americans, came to Hawks Nest from other parts of the country to work. Everyone in the Whippoorwill graveyard was black; they couldn't be buried in Fayette County cemeteries alongside white people because Jim Crow laws were still in effect.
During Fridays' ceremony, local members of the Future Business Leaders of America will light 41 candles to honor the victims. They will also read the names of the men buried in the graves.
"We think there are probably more than 41 in these graves," Charlotte Neilan said. "We think it is nice to hold this ceremony, since none of these people ever had a funeral. ... We are going to remember them."
In June 2009, former Sen. Randy White, D-Webster, helped get the project a $10,000 Governor's Community Participation Grant. The money was used to begin clearing trees, brush, tires and other debris from the Whippoorwill site.
The West Virginia National Guard helped grade and expand the parking area near the cemetery.
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," published in 1986 by Yale University professor Martin Cherniack
At the time, Union Carbide said only 109 tunnel workers died between 1930 and 1935, Cherniack wrote.
As many as 5,000 men may have worked on the tunnel, most of them for just a few weeks.
Cherniak focused on the 1,213 who worked at least two months, which he believed was the minimum exposure needed to contract silicosis. He said his statistical assumptions were conservative, so the actual number of deaths was probably higher.
Those planning to attend Friday's ceremonies include Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va.; the Rev. Ronald W. English, former pastor at Charleston's First Baptist Church; the Rev. Nelson Staples, a civil rights activist and minister in Beckley; and Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer.
Friday's event will begin at 1 p.m. at the Nicholas Old Main Auditorium in downtown Summersville, then move to the Whippoorwill cemetery at 2:30 p.m., about four miles outside the city. More information is available at the Hawks Nest Worker's Memorial website, http://hawksnest-rip.com
Reach Paul J. Nyden at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5164.