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.