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."