Final rest for forgotten victims of industrial tragedy

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, Sept. 7, 2012.

SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. — History doesn’t have much to say about Roosevelt Singleton.

We do not know where he was born or where he lived before moving to Gauley Bridge to work in the Hawks Nest Tunnel. We do not know his parents’ names, his marital status or his religious affiliation.

There are a few things history can tell us, however.

His death certificate indicates he was 31 years old when his lungs stopped working on May 14, 1931. He pulled his last shift at the tunnel less than two weeks before, on May 2.

Dr. Wilkerson at the Coal Valley Hospital in Montgomery listed pneumonia as the cause of death, although it was most likely acute silicosis caused by high levels of silica in the ground and unsafe drilling techniques.

When Singleton died, his body was taken in the dark of night to a farm owned by the local mortician’s mother. He was buried alongside about 80 other African-American workers who died from working in the tunnel.

But the graveyard was only a temporary resting place.

In 1972 the state decided to widen U.S. 19. Singleton’s body was exhumed with the rest of the fallen workers, transported a few miles down the road and reburied in unconsecrated ground, in a lot that would later be used to dump road kill carcasses, old tires and broken washing machines.

Now, 40 years later, some Summersville residents are striving for a better ending for this tragic story.

Charlotte Yeager Neilan moved to Summersville from Charleston in 1990, where she and her late husband, Charles, became editor and publisher of the Nicholas Chronicle newspaper.

About 10 years ago, Neilan heard rumors of a lost cemetery for Hawks Nest tunnel workers. The story piqued her interest but no one wanted to talk about it.

“People just kind of said it in whispers,” she said.

She started searching for the graveyard with the help of a few friends, but to no avail. She spent about five years looking but was never able to locate it.

“People did not want the truth,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

Finally, in 2009, she heard about Richard Hartman, a West Virginia State University history professor. He also was haunted by the story of the lost graveyard. But unlike Neilan, Hartman had actually located the plot.

Hartman first learned of the site in 2000 while working on a master’s degree in history at Marshall University.

He was writing a paper about tunnel contractor Rinehart and Dennis when he came across a passage about black workers buried on the White family farm.

Union Carbide, which owned the tunnel, hired local undertaker Hadley White to bury workers who died at the Hawks Nest Tunnel.

White’s services were certainly in demand. Workers were dying by the dozens from what doctors then diagnosed as “pneumonia” or “tunnel-itis.”

Experts now agree the men actually died from acute silicosis. While silicosis usually is a slow-moving disease, destroying victims’ lungs by building up scar tissue, Hawks Nest workers ingested much more dust than usual because of the tunnel’s high silica concentration and the unsafe drilling techniques.

Rinehart and Dennis refused to employ “wet drilling,” which calls for water to be sprayed at the drill site to suppress dust in the air, because Union Carbide planned to use the silica in metal alloys.

Workers like Singleton quickly paid the price. They ingested more and more silica with each breath, inflaming and scarring their lungs and causing them to fill with fluid.

“People got sick very quickly, within a matter of months rather than five or 10 years,” said Dr. Marin Cherniack, a professor of medicine at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Although no one has reached a definitive death count, Cherniack estimates more than 700 people died of acute silicosis while building the Hawks Nest Tunnel.

Hadley White, whose descendants still run a funeral home in Summersville, set up an additional funeral parlor in Gauley Bridge to handle the demand.

Hartman said some bodies were shipped home to loved ones, but that was impossible for many workers.

“You had a lot of people back during the Great Depression going from one place to another looking for work. There was no record of where they were from, so there’s no place to send the body,” he said.

That left White to find graves for many men.

Jim Crow laws at the time prevented blacks from occupying cemeteries alongside whites, so the undertaker buried some workers in an old slave cemetery at the Summersville Presbyterian Church. He quickly ran out of room so he began burying the workers — laid unembalmed in plain wooden boxes — on his mother’s farm a few miles outside town.

The arrangement worked out fine until 1972, when the state Department of Transportation decided to widen U.S. 19. The proposed road project cut right through the White farm and Hadley White’s makeshift cemetery.

The state paid Howard White, Hadley’s son, to oversee the exhumation. Howard later told Hartman that a contractor placed the skeletal remains in 3-foot wooden boxes and took them away for reburial. White said he did not know where that took place.

That bothered Hartman. He was working for the state transportation department at the time and wondered if the bodies were not lost, but only misplaced.

“I knew what they did with cemeteries when they were relocated for highway purposes. There were records kept,” he said.

He visited the Division of Highways office in Greenbrier County to review documents from the widening of U.S. 19 and discovered a map of a cemetery from where the bodies had been moved. According to the map, the Department of Transportation purchased a plot of land near the highway as part of the road construction project and moved the bodies there.

Hartman drove to the site.

“There was nothing there. Just trees growing up, and trees that looked like they had been growing for some time, before 1972,” he said.

Dejected, Hartman headed home to South Charleston.

A short time later David Smith, a GED teacher at the Friends-R-Fun Child Development Center in Summersville, contacted Hartman. Smith said he, too, was looking for the lost cemetery and had a general idea of its location.

“I’m on the phone here in Charleston, and he’s down there on Whippoorwill Road, and I’m leading him with the map I’ve got in my hand as he’s walking up and down this road,” Hartman said.

Soon, Smith came across something.

He described what he saw over the phone: a small clearing off Whippoorwill Road with only a few small saplings growing on it. There appeared to be multiple depressions in the ground.

“I said yes, that may be it,” Hartman said.

He jumped in his car and headed back to Summersville.

The lot was filled with trash, old tires and washing machines. Highway workers also were apparently using it as a dumping ground for road kill.

But Hartman and Smith found several temporary markers, like the ones funeral homes leave on a grave until a proper headstone is delivered.

The pair counted dozens of depressions in the clearing, a volume that seemed to correspond with the remains that would have been relocated from the White farm.

“It was such a revelation. When I finally found it, I sat down and cried,” Charlotte Yeager Neilan said.

She cried not only because the cemetery had been discovered, but also because the property had been so neglected in the years following the workers’ reinterment. She decided the men deserved better.

Neilan and her new husband, George, applied for and received a $10,000 community participation grant from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office to fix up the cemetery. Soon, they had the rest of the Summersville community on board.

Summersville city employees helped the Neilans clear trash and members of the West Virginia National Guard hauled in gravel to create a parking lot.

New River Community and Technical College’s welding class constructed a gate for the front of the cemetery. Neilan said future classes will complete the fence, wrapping it all the way around the cemetery.

The Stone Masons Yard in Birch River donated and installed stone steps and a wheelchair ramp leading from the parking area to the graves.

George estimated the project might have cost $60,000 without all the donations.

Nicholas County High School’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter also pitched in, helping to clear debris and raising money for the historic marker that now stands at the mouth of Whippoorwill Road.

Today the students will return to the cemetery for a reading of the workers’ names, culled from death certificates George found. Three ministers will be on hand to consecrate the ground.

Charlotte said these men deserve a proper funeral service, even if it’s 80 years overdue.

“It’s important because they were treated so shabbily during their lives. These poor men had a horrible life and they were treated no better in death,” she said.

Work on the cemetery is far from complete.

There are 48 gravesites and most are now marked with small orange flags.

She said there are probably two or three sets of remains to each grave because some were combined when reburied. She plans to have a stone monument inscribed with each worker’s name made for the site and eventually a permanent marker on each grave.

That way, if the descendants of the Hawks Nest workers want to visit West Virginia and pay their respects, they will see more than a clearing a few hundred yards from the highway.

“We need to make it right. It was a wrong, and we need to make a wrong right,” she said.