The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

September 8, 2012

Memorial pays tribute to lost tunnel workers

Over 700 men who lost their lives digging the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel were honored Friday at a dedication ceremony, which many said was long overdue.

The Old Main High School auditorium was filled with residents, historians and students eager to pay tribute to those men who died and their families who suffered in what is considered America’s worst industrial accident.

The workers who mined the 3.8 mile tunnel for a hydroelectric plant through Gauley Mountain in 1930 were exposed to silica dust, causing silicosis, a preventable but incurable disease. The men were primarily migrant workers, mostly black and were paid just a few dollars per day.

When the workers became sick, many were driven out of the camps to die elsewhere. Black workers who died there could not be buried locally because of Jim Crow laws during that time period.

A Summersville undertaker who lived 40 miles north of the tunnel was hired to take the bodies away. He was paid $50 per body and they were stacked up on the back of a flatbed truck.  

The undertaker buried a few bodies in a small cemetery in Summersville, but due to the amount of lives lost, he ran out of room. He buried approximately 48 victims at his family farm late at night, where they remained for 40 years.

When U.S. 19 was widened in 1972, the bodies had to be moved. The Department of Highways contacted the son of the original undertaker, who reinterred them near Summersville Lake on Whippoorwill Road, a few miles south of the original site.

In 2009, Charlotte and George Neilan prepared an application for a grant to fund a workers’ memorial.

City workers and local high school students worked to clear the grave site, which had was covered in brush and debris.

A monument with the names of the victims now sits near the graves after all these years.

Summersville Mayor Robert Shafer welcomed everyone to the event Friday, which he said was long overdue.

Congressman Nick Rahall said he was glad to join in the commemoration of the lives of all those men.

“Their suffering helped ignite workers’ rights in America,” Rahall said. He noted the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, but said largely, great improvements have been made to ensure the safety of workers.

“Those men endured dangers for a paycheck and for their daily bread. Let us keep their stories alive so future generations do not repeat these mistakes.”

Filmmaker David Pushkin spoke to the crowd about his film featuring Hawk’s Nest, which is expected to be complete in the next two years.

Author Dr. Dwight Harshbarger read a brief excerpt from his book “Witness at Hawks Nest.” He donated 40 books for the proceeds to benefit the memorial site.

His book features some fictional and some non-fictional characters, one of whom was Shirley Jones. Jones went to work when he was 17 years old and died when he was 18.

Some of the Jones family survivors attended the dedication and were recognized by the event speakers.

Charlotte Neiman, publisher of the Nicholas Chronicle, said the Jones family suffered tremendously; one woman lost her husband, brother and three sons during the tunnel mining.

She was compensated $800 per son and $1,000 for her husband. Those rates were cut in half if the worker was black.

Mayor Shafer’s daughter, Shealyn, who is a member of the Nicholas County High School Future Business Leaders of America, told everyone about the work her group had done toward the memorial.

They helped clean the gravesite and helped raise $2,000 toward the historical marker. The students also gathered a 30 page report to present at the FBLA state conference, winning first place at the state level and sixth place nationally.

Rev. Ron English with the First Baptist Church in Charleston, who gave the prayer at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, came to give his remarks.

“Four words pivot around the purpose of our gathering: celebration, commemoration, commendation and correction.”

He said we must celebrate the lives of those men lost, commemorate them, commend them for their hard work, but correct the fact that they were buried in unmarked graves.

He especially thanked Charlotte Neiman for bringing the story of the Hawk’s Nest workers back to life and giving them a proper memorial.

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