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Good people kept Hawk's Nest memory

I thank the Daily Mail for its extensive and thoughtful coverage of the dedication of the memorial to fallen and forgotten Hawks Nest Tunnel workers.

As you reported, construction of the tunnel in the 1930s led to the deaths of as many as 700 West Virginians, who inhaled fatal levels of silica as they clawed through the mountain as part of a massive hydro-electric power project.

Most were dead within months. It has been called the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.

To add insult to injury, the remains of many African-American workers, first buried at a former slave cemetery in Summersville, were moved and dumped at an unmarked location to make way for the expansion for U.S. 19 in 1972.

These forgotten grounds eventually became littered with road kill and abandoned appliances.

Thanks to the persistence of citizens like Charlotte Yeager Neilan, publisher of the Nicholas Chronicle, WVSU professor Richard Hartman and Summersville teacher David Smith, among many others, the remains of the bodies were located. Their discovery sparked a remarkable community-wide effort to establish a proper cemetery for 41 forgotten souls.

The ceremonies were a pitch-perfect tribute to these workers, who gave their lives in the name of progress and showcased what people of good will can accomplish when they come together to right a wrong.

They were also a poignant reminder that, in the words of U.S. Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, who spoke at the dedication, "America has come a long way, but not far enough."

I was privileged to attend the memorial service and consecration of the burial ground as a parent chaperone for advanced elementary students from Mountaineer Montessori School.

They have been researching the Hawks Nest Tunnel for nearly a year as part of a project to develop a middle school educational curriculum that will complement a documentary on the disaster being produced by David Pushkin.

Their trip to Summerville brought them face to face with the legacy of Hawks Nest. They heard from victims' families and walked the grounds where bodily remains were unceremoniously abandoned.

The great William Faulkner wrote that "the past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Those ceremonies reminded students that we as a society cannot move forward without honoring and heeding the lessons of our past.

Joellen Zacks

Charleston

Zacks is vice president of the board of directors of Mountaineer Montessori School.

 


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