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Historic injustices must be remembered

In the early 1930s, Union Carbide Corp. hired Rinehart & Dennis to build a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain. It was designed to boost the flow of water from the New River to a hydroelectric plant that served the Alloy Plant at Gauley Bridge.

As the Daily Mail's Zack Harold recounted Friday, the project led to the worst industrial disaster in U.S. history. Thousands of workers were permanently injured and as many as 700 died as a result of inhaling the almost pure silica they mined through on the job.

Because the silica could be used to make alloys, the contractor did not use wet drilling techniques that would have minimized the risk.

The African-American victims then suffered insult upon injury. Initially, some were buried in an old slave ceremony at Summersville Presbyterian Church. Later victims were buried on a farm.

In 1972, the state unceremoniously moved those bodies when it widened U.S. 19. Over the years, that site came to be used as a dump.

About 10 years ago, Charlotte Yeager Neilan and her late husband, Charles, publishers of the Nicholas Chronicle, began trying to find the now-forgotten location.

They learned that Richard Hartman, a West Virginia State University professor, had found the location using state Division of Highways maps.

But when he went there, he saw nothing.

Enter David Smith, a teacher in Summersville, who was also looking for the graves. Following instructions from Hartman on the phone from Charleston, Smith

finally found a small clearing with multiple depressions. Hartman immediately headed to the site,  and the two eventually found a few temporary markers.

Charlotte Neilan cried when she saw the place,  and set about trying to make amends. She and her husband, George, sought a $10,000 grant from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's office to set things right at the cemetery.

Then a lot of other people got involved. - Summersville city employees, the National Guard, a welding class at New River Community and Technology College, members of the Future Business Leaders of America at Nicholas County High School, and more.

On Friday, about 100 people gathered at Nicholas Old Main Auditorium in memory of the workers, and at Whipporwill Cemetery to consecrate the graves of the 41 men buried there.

Theirs was a bitter history of injury and injustice. It will be remembered because of a sweet and determined community-wide effort to right that wrong.

May other such historic injustices properly be memorialized as well.

 


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