How do you write a satisfying story about a real event that simply does NOT have a happy ending? That’s what I tackled when I decided to write The Finder of Forgotten Things around the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster.
I’ve long been haunted by tunnel tragedy–the worst industrial disaster in the U.S. But it’s such a terrible story. Without a satisfactory ending. And I’ve promised my readers (and myself) to always write happy (or at least satisfying) endings.
Since there’s no comeuppance of the corporation, no underdog winning the day, and no return to health of the men who were so blatantly robbed of it, I had to look elsewhere for satisfaction. Much as we often do in real life. And I considered, what if the satisfying ending is to be found in simply remembering who those men were and what they suffered?
Several times now I’ve visited the little cemetery at the end of Whippoorwill Road off Route 19 as I travel between North Carolina and West Virginia. It’s a lovely spot, even though the highway thunders close by. This is the final resting place of what little is left of those men buried in an anonymous cornfield outside of Summersville, WV. They were forgotten there until a highway came through. Then they were relocated to Whippoorwill Road in 1971, where they were once again forgotten.
It’s thanks in large part to local newspaper publisher Charlotte Yeager that the cemetery was restored and, in 2012, consecrated and dedicated. The site is now maintained, and an impressive monument has been erected to ensure the dead are not forgotten again.
In my novel, when Gainey, Jeremiah, and Logan discover markers in the original cemetery, each name they read is the actual name of someone who worked in the Hawks Nest Tunnel and was buried in that anonymous field. You can find a list of all the known names at www.hawksnestnames.org/names. The ones who were buried in the cornfield are listed with “White Farm, Summersville, West Virginia.”
On that list you’ll also see the names of the Jones family, which I included in my story. Yes, all three sons and their father died, as well as an uncle. The very least I can do for Emma Jones is to include her name in my story. She should not be forgotten, either.
The death toll from the Hawks Nest Tunnel is estimated at 764 men. It’s estimated because so many of them died after leaving West Virginia. They may have returned home or moved on in the never-ending search for work during the Great Depression. It’s very likely that the silicosis those men contracted resulted in many more deaths over the years. Regardless, it was the worst industrial accident in U.S. history.
And yes, the final “reckoning” was no more than the letter of finding described in the last chapter of the novel. While there was some financial compensation, the bulk of it went to the attorneys, and what did reach the workers is accurately depicted in the wide disparity between what the white and the Black workers received, none of which is very satisfying at all.
And so, if you read the story, you will see that I give Sulley, Gainey, and Jeremiah their happy ending against the backdrop of a tragic event that was all too real. And while the story finds hope in the resilience of the human spirit, in finding romance at all stages of life, and in the joy to be found in families of all kinds, I also pray it helps make sure the men who died at Hawks Nest in the 1930s are never, ever forgotten.