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Mountaintop Removal Protest Echoes Historic Labor Battle

March Next Week Hopes to Save West Virginia’s Blair Mountain

The marchers who will take to the roads of West Virginia next week to try to stop the demolition of yet another mountain for the coal underneath will be following the same route that more than 10,000 well-armed miners took 90 years ago.

In 1921, miners marched to free the southwestern part of the state from the coal industry. Then they were stopped by a small army of heavily armed coal mine guards at Blair Mountain. During the next five days, the miners and company guards fought across the mountainside. Thirty men died. The Battle of Blair Mountain is known as the largest civil insurrection since the Civil War.

old photo of people with armaments in a trenchPhoto courtesy: The Lattimer Massacre ProjectA scene from the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, West Virginia.

Today’s peaceful marchers are fighting the second Battle of Blair Mountain, hoping to preserve the historic site from mountaintop removal coal mining. Bulldozers are already visible from its ridge top, as nearby mountains are steadily leveled for coal. Mining permits for the Blair site mean that mining can proceed if the site is not protected.

“The Blair Mountain Battlefield is one of West Virginia's most valuable historical resources,” said Brandon Nida, a local resident and West Virginia native. “In addition to the historical significance, the potential for heritage tourism and small business growth from the sustainable development of Blair Mountain is enormous.”

Marchers will take a 50-mile route from Marmet WV to the Blair Mountain site near Logan. Environmental attorney and activist, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., will speak, and country music stars Emmylou Harris and Kathy Mattea will perform. Coalfield citizens who have direct connections to the 1921 marchers will also share their stories.

West Virginians regard Blair Mountain as sacred ground,” said Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association.

The twin battles of Blair Mountain are the bookends of a coal conflict that has spanned a century.

The first battle was triggered by a series of injustices. Foremost on the list of grievances was the assassination of Sheriff Sid Hatfield by a coal mine guard on the steps of a McDowell County Courthouse in August 1921. Hatfield was an elected official who was scheduled to appear in court on charges that he had contributed to the deaths of seven coal company detectives in the town of Matewan, WV three months earlier. Hatfield’s assassin – although known – was never prosecuted.

photo of a peaceful stream running near a green mountainThis picture by Kent Kessinger is part of the National Memorials for the Mountains photo stream,
hosted by
Blair Mountain, West Virginia.

But even before Hatfield’s assassination, the tension had been building in the coal fields. Systematic violence against miners and families, along with a company store system that was close to outright slavery, were among the many grievances.

The first Battle of Blair Mountain ended when US troops arrived at the site on Sept. 4, 1921. While miners were happy to fight private company guards, they would not fight federal troops, in part because many were themselves veterans of World War I. In the aftermath of the battle, over 1,200 indictments were handed down, but juries refused to convict labor leaders. And while the labor movement was dealt a blow, the battle also helped create strong support for labor that emerged in the 1930s.

The second Battle of Blair Mountain has been underway since the 1980s, when labor and environmental activists began trying to protect the site. In 1994, historians first proposed placing the land under protected status. After a lengthy and complex process, the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 2009. Then, under political pressure from the coal industry, the National Park Service de-listed the site in January of 2010. (See Blair Mountain Chronology, below.)

Last September, four groups filed a federal lawsuit to return the site to the National Register of Historic Places: the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Friends of Blair Mountain, and the West Virginia Labor History Association. The suit alleges that the de-listing “was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the National Park Service’s own regulations.” The Friends of Blair Mountain saw the process of de-listing as “bureaucratic fraud.”

The de-listing was, at the very least, unprecedented. Other National Park Service de-listings posted on its website involve minor historical sites that suffered irreversible accidental damage.

The de-listing has opened the door to mountaintop removal coal mining, which would certainly destroy it as a memorial and as a location for archeological and historical studies.

"Allowing Blair Mountain to be destroyed is akin to suggesting that we blow up and bulldoze Harpers Ferry,” said Gordon Simmons, spokesman for a state association of labor historians. “The reasons for preserving Blair Mountain are so numerous and obvious that we ought to begin asking why, for what purpose, anyone would seriously want its destruction."

The site contains 15 separate battle sites, around one million bullets, and many thousands of artifacts. Only some of these have been located and mapped by a team of archeologists led by Harvard Ayers, a professor at Appalachian State University, and guided by Kenny King, a coal miner whose relatives fought in the battle. By mapping the locations of bullets, casings, buttons and discarded weapons, Ayers and King have been able to trace the progress of the five-day battle.

Among other things, the work has shown previously unknown evidence of areas where miners broke through the company guard lines. “There was some pretty hot, close in fighting going on there,” Ayers said.

The archeological reports have been one factor, along with the support of hundreds of historians and dozens of historical organizations, in getting the site listed.

“We are currently in the midst of a multi-front campaign to preserve Blair Mountain,” Ayers said. “Standing against us are the powerful and well funded agents of Big Coal and the West Virginia State government.”

Many others are adamant about the value of the site.

"There are some places that are so sacred to our state and national history that they must be deemed as off limits to destructive surface coal mining," said Regina Hendrix of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. "What tourist would want to visit the desolate landscape left behind by strip mining?"

Sixty-seven organizations are supporting the march, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Kentuckians for The Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Appalachian Voices, and Rainforest Action Network.

Notable for its absence is the United Mine Workers of America. The miners union has supported efforts to preserve Blair Mountain, but only UMWA local members will be marching in the protests next week. That’s because the UMWA is not opposed to mountaintop removal mining, while most of the march organizers are focused on ending the destructive practice altogether.

“The felling of any mountain for a few months or weeks worth of coal is an affront to the ecology and people of Appalachia,” the march organizers said on their website. "But Blair carries a unique significance: it is a testament to over one hundred years of resistance to the coal industry, which has placed profit over land, human life and the most ancient mountain range on the planet. To lose Blair is, in some ways, to bury this history of resistance."

“Like the miners who marched in 1921, we are living in a critical moment in history. King Coal continues to disregard the lives of miners and, since the mid-20th century, has been tearing the land itself apart.” The march will “ let the world know that Appalachians and their allies are creating a new narrative of resistance – one that binds environment, labor and community together to fight for a better world.”

Blair Mountain Chronology
  • 1902: Union organizing begins in West Virginia in the Kanawha-New River coalfields. Most gains are lost by 1912 due to harassment of organizers by coal company mine guards.
  • 1912: Cabin Creek and Paint Creek miners strike. They are evicted from their homes, and tent colonies are set up.
  • 1913: Machine guns fire on miners’ tent colony. Mine workers win right to organize in Cabin and Paint creek areas.
  • 1913 - 1920: Protest marches in Logan County.
  • 1920, May 21: Matewan Massacre. Seven coal company detectives, two miners, and the mayor of Matewan (Logan County) WV die after a shoot-out. Police chief Sid Hatfield is charged in connection with the deaths of the detectives. Hatfield had tried to prevent the warrantless evictions of mining families by coal company guards.
  • 1921, August 1: Hatfield and a deputy are shot outside McDowell County courthouse by C.E. Lively, a Baldwin-Felts detective. Lively is never convicted.
  • 1921, August 31- September 4: Battle of Blair Mountain. More than 10,000 armed miners converge on Logan County. They are stopped as they try to cross Blair Mountain by several thousand coal company guards armed with automatic weapons.
  • 1921, September 4: US Army troops arrive. Miners refuse to fight them and return home.
  • 1922: Some 1,217 indictments are handed down, including 325 for murder and 24 for treason. One treason charge is brought against union organizer Bill Blizzard, sometimes considered to be the "general" of the miners' army. Eventually all charges against Blizzard are dropped. A handful of people are convicted of reduced charges.
  • 1924: United Mine Workers membership drops off in West Virginia.
  • 1933: National Industrial Recovery Act recognizes right to organize unions, and the labor movement picks up steam in West Virginia.
  • 1950s: Some of Bill Blizzard’s memoirs are published in local newspapers, and are later collected by Wess Harris in the book “When Miners March.”
  • 1960s and 70s: First historical accounts of the “Mingo war” and “Miners War” appear, for example, Fred Mooney’s “Struggle in the Coal Fields,” (1967).
  • 1980s: Massey Coal company subsidiary receives a permit for surface mining at Blair Mountain. Residents near Blair Mountain begin informal archeological surveys and organizing for historic preservation.
  • 1987: National Trust for Historic Preservation sues US Office of Surface Mining, arguing that its regulations governing historical preservation are inadequate.
  • 1987: Motion picture “Matewan” produced by John Sayles, depicting the fight between Hatfield and the coal mine guards.
  • 1992: West Virginia University conducts cultural resource survey at request of WV House Speaker Chuck Chambers. Survey covers 80 square miles but has inadequate archaeology.
  • 1994: National Park Service historian John Bond prepares nomination for Blair Mountain as a National Historic Landmark.
  • 1995: United Mine Workers of America union agrees with coal industry to erect a National Historic Landmark on Blair Mountain and allow mining to proceed on most of the land. Others still object.
  • 1996: National Park Service again asks state to update original nomination for National Historic Landmark status.
  • 1999: State of West Virginia recommends against nomination for the entire battlefield, suggests instead three smaller nominations. WV cites lack of archaeological evidence and poor integrity as the basis for its negative recommendation. Appalachian State University professor Harvard Ayers begins preliminary archeological surveys.
  • 2002: Kenny King prepares nomination based on National Historic Landmark draft document, spends another two years trying to meet state requirements.
  • 2004: Historians begin assembling documents for renewed bid for historic preservation with WV State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The SHPO determines that the Blair Mountain site is eligible for placement on the National Register and should be presented to the Archives and History Commission at the May 6, 2005 meeting.
  • 2005: WV Archives and History Commission recommends NPS register 1,600 acres of Blair for the National Register. Landholding companies and coal companies sue the Archives & History Commission members individually and employees of the State Historic Preservation Office. The suit is later dismissed.
  • 2006, May: National Trust for Historic Preservation puts Blair Mountain on list of 11 most endangered places in the nation. UMWA and Sierra club support a national register listing because of the site’s importance to the labor movement.
  • 2006, Fall: Full blown archeological survey by Appalachian State University Prof. Harvard Ayers and nearby landowner Kenny King.
  • 2007: Full application with archeological study is submitted to National Park Service.
  • 2007, May: National Park Service returns Blair Mountain nomination to the WV State Historic Preservation Office with request for more information.
  • 2007, September: Hearings take place at the state level. Many historical organizations support the nomination.
  • 2009, March 30: The National Park Service adds Blair Mountain to the National Register.
  • 2009, April: Under pressure from the coal industry, the WV SHPO finds new evidence of nearby landowner opposition and asks National Park Service to de-list Blair Mountain. Friends of Blair Mountain find serious flaws with the process.
  • 2010, January: National Park Service agrees to take Blair Mountain off the national register.
  • 2010, August:National Park Service refuses to reconsider the de-listing.
  • 2010, September: Four groups file a federal lawsuit to return the site to the National Register of Historic Places. The Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Friends of Blair Mountain and the West Virginia Labor History Association. The suit alleges that the de-listing “was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the National Park Service’s own regulations.”
  • 2011, June 6 - 11: March on Blair Mountain organized by coalition of Appalachian and national environmental organizations.

Bill Kovarik
Bill Kovarik is a journalist, historian and a professor of communication at Radford University in Virginia. He has covered the Appalachian region for a decade and is the author of the Environmental History Timeline. His latest project is Brilliant, a book about the history of renewable energy.

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