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February 05
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JANUARY 31, 2010 12:46PM

It's Happening Now: The 2nd Battle of Blair Mountain

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There is a battle raging in the West Virginia mountains.  It is a battle whose ugly scars may be permanent.  It is a battle being fought on hallowed ground, where 88 years ago more than a hundred desperate and angry men gave their lives for the chance to live with dignity.  Raging now in southwestern West Virginia is the second Battle of Blair Mountain.

  blair mountain

First some background.  If you've read my blog before, some of this may be familiar.  In the immediate years following World War I, miners in West Virginia began organizing for better wages and living conditions under the auspices of the United Mine Workers Union.  For years, much of the state had been mired in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty, where men – and boys – worked in incredibly dangerous conditions not for dollars, but for script, faux money that could only be used in stores owned and operated by the coal companies for which they worked.  Making matters worse, the companies owned the land and forced workers to rent ramshackle houses from their employers.  The companies were the only landowners and landlords around. 

As living conditions declined in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, the miners went on strike.  The coal companies responded by evicting the miners from their homes and  replacing them with poor and unemployed workers from overseas, or African-Americans from the Deep South.  When these workers went on strike as well, the coal companies adopted more stringent tactics, hiring private security forces (some would call them “thugs”) from the Baldwin-Phelps Detective Agency to hunt down and violently intimidate the strikers to break the strike.


blair mountain village

 Coal mining town of Blair Mountain in the 1920's


On August 1, 1921, Sid Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan, West Virginia, was gunned down in front of the courthouse in the town of Welch, West Virginia, by gunmen believed to have been hired by the Baldwin-Phelps Detective Agency.   It was a revenge killing, since Hatfield had supported the strikers during the early skirmishes with the Baldwin-Phelps agents.  Enraged at Hatfield’s murder, between 10,000 and 15,000 angry miners began marching toward Logan and Mingo Counties to organize a union by force.  In their eagerness to avenge Hatfield’s murder, some of the marching miners even hijacked a freight train, which alarmed authorities as far away as Washington, DC.

As news of the approaching mob of miners reached officials in Logan County, the county sheriff, with the support of the Logan County Coal Operators Association, set up 10 miles of defensive positions around Blair Mountain.  As the miners grew near, some 2,000 heavily armed private security forces, including many with machine guns, prepared for battle.  Fearing a bloodbath, many of the miners decided to halt the march and negotiate with authorities in neighboring Boone County.  On August 26, most of the miners started to return home.  The sheriff of Logan County, however, would not be denied his battle.  Sharpshooters began firing on many of the miners even though they had discontinued their march and were heading home.  Several innocent bystanders, including women and children, were caught in the crossfire. 

Now enraged, the miners turned around and resumed their march on Logan County.  More trains were hijacked.  On August 29, a full scale battle commenced.  It was not only the private security forces facing the miners.  President Warren G. Harding authorized World War I hero Gen. Billy Mitchell to use surplus airplanes and munitions from the war to make air strikes against the miners, dropping bombs as well as gas on several locations near the town of Jeffrey, West Virginia.  This marked the only time in American history that air power was used on American soil against American citizens. 

blair mountain gunnersSecurity forces armed with machine guns await the approaching miners

The battle lasted close to a week.  On Sept. 2, Federal ground troops arrived in Logan County.  With that, the miners called off their efforts and began to return home.  The Battle of Blair Mountain was over.  With more than 100 killed, and nearly 1,000 injured, it was the bloodiest insurrection to take place in the United States since the Civil War.  For the miners, this attempt to unionize ended in failure. 

Move the clock forward 88 years.  On March 30, 2009, after years of efforts by various interest groups and preservationists, Blair Mountain was added to the National Register of Historic Places, to be managed by the National Park Service.  This was good news for a variety of reasons.  First, as a significant historical site, inclusion in the Registry gives the nearly forgotten events of 1921 much deserved recognition.  Perhaps more important than that, however, is the fact that its status as a national historical site will protect Blair Mountain from the potential ravages of mountaintop removal coal mining.  Already, the tops of several neighboring mountains have been blasted away, leaving a permanent scar on what was once an undeniably beautiful landscape.  

blair_mountian_aerial-mountain top removal  Blair Mountain in the foreground, with mountaintop removal coal mines in distance.

With its listing on the National Historical Register, Blair Mountain will be spared that fate.


Inexplicably, on December 9, 2009, Blair Mountain was delisted from the National Historical Registry.  According to a spokesperson for the West Virginia State Historical Preservation Office (SHPO), the delisting resulted from concerns expressed by a majority of property owners on the site, as well as objections from three coal companies headquartered out of state that covet the mountain’s underground riches. 

In advocating Blair Mountain's delisting, the SHPO claimed there were 57 landowners on the site, of whom 30 voiced objections to its inclusion on the Historical Registry.  However, supporters of the historical designation have identified 61 landowners, and only 25 legitimate objectors, a far cry from the majority that the SHPO claims objects to the historical designation.  In addition, two of the so-called objectors have been deceased for several years.  When asked about that, the State Historical Preservation Officer (SHPO) replied, “We cannot confirm or deny that there are no deceased on the SHPO list dated May 21, 2009.”

For a place with as much historical significance as Blair Mountain, there has been very little in the way of archeological exploration of the site.  In 2006, the first methodical archeological field survey took place under the auspices of Appalachian State University.   After three weeks in the field, hundreds of artifacts were found, including a large number of shell casings and rifle bullets.  A few guns were found, as well.  Some of the discoveries suggest that the miners came much closer to realizing their goal of reaching the town of Logan than had been previously assumed.  More in depth analysis of the site could almost certainly help historians piece together the events of that bloody week to reach a better understanding of what actually transpired. 

    bullet       pistol

Archeological finds from 2006 survey of Blair Mountain

The removal of Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places makes that possibility much more difficult, if not impossible.  In 2006, before Blair Mountain was included on the Registry, The National Trust for Historical Preservation listed the battle site as one of the 11 most endangered historical sites in the nation.  If the coal companies succeed in keeping Blair Mountain off of the Registry, this will be the mountain’s likely fate:


mt removal


Those who refuse to sit quietly while powerful political and economic forces seek to reap short-term profits at the expense of historical and scenic preservation are fighting back.  They have formed a non-profit advocacy group called The Friends of Blair Mountain (  Their struggle to save this important site is a battle every bit as consequential as that which was waged in August, 1921.  The 2nd Battle of Blair Mountain has commenced.  Its outcome is uncertain.

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I have read many accounts of the first battle of Blair Mountain and am fairly familiar with the story but I confess that I am woefully ignorant of the second battle...until today. Thank you Procopius for once again educating me. By the way, it is good to see you back in here, Iwas wondering where you had gotten off to.
Steve, in echoing Torman's comment it's great to see your presence here after not seeing any posts from you for a while! I was not at all up to speed on the Blair Mountain situation and thank you for the latest information.

Regarding: "However, supporters of the historical designation have identified 61 landowners, and only 25 legitimate objectors, a far cry from the majority that the SHPO claims objects to the historical designation. In addition, two of the so-called objectors have been deceased for several years." --this sounds more like the kind of nonsense we experienced during the last administration. Perhaps the SHPO officials involved are a legacy of that period. I certainly hope the group, The Friends of Blair Mountain, has success in turning this around for the better.
Money talks...someone with influence got to the SHPO. It is a sad situation, with King Coal on top again. Thanks, Steve, for the extremely timely, fascinating, but sad post.
Torman, I came across this news quite by accident, and it really made me angry. I have family connections in Logan County (which I've posted about before), and the mountaintop removal strip mines there have ravaged a beautiful landscape. It is tragic, and my late mother, who was born there, would not believe such a thing is possible if whe were still alive.

John, I'm quite surprised that the delisting made it past our current Sec. of the Interior, Mr. Salazar. However, I remember when his name first came up after Obama's election, many feared he was too close to the business interests who want to claim our natural heritage as their own. Let's hope he intervenes in a positive manner as this issue gains visibility.

Ralph, if you were to put together a balance sheet to show the gains and the losses that coal has brought to West Virginia, I have no doubt the liability side of the ledger would be bigger -- much bigger -- than the asset side. Coal has been a curse on that region. With mountaintop removal, the curse is permanent.
Thanks for filling me in on the second battle, of which I was unaware. Hope this story gets traction.
jimmymac, I obviously share your hope that this story gains traction. I especially hope the communities near Blair Mountain unite to prevent this site's destruction. Ultimately, it will be up to them. Without their voice, the powers that be in Washington and Charleston will let the delisting stand, come what may.
This is the real Blair witch Project....
This is both fascinating and frightening! Well documented, Steve.
I don't know why I am still both surprised and appalled to discover we haven't learned a damn thing.

I hope that they succeed in re-establishing the mountain on the historical registry, which is where it belongs.

This issue is getting red hot, thanks in no small part to posts like this one. Please join the fray. contact me at
Gordon Simmons, West Virginia Labor History Association.
Procopius, thank you for this information and for fighting to save this beloved mountain.

I recently encountered info. that my current bank, Chase, whom I dislike a lot may have a hand in destoying mountains. How can I find out if this rumor is true?

Thanks and Rated.
rated. wish i could rate again!
Algis, ha! Thanks for stopping by.

Cathy, what is being done to the land is frightening indeed.

Bill, you're right, we should not be surprised at what others will do for financial gain.

Gordon, thanks -- I will contact you to see what us out of state folks can do. I am glad to hear the issue is going viral.

Gwen, good question, and I suppose it is conceivable that the big banks are are providing the financing to blow up the mountains. I am not sure how to find out, though, other than through the investor relations organizations of the banks.

ghost, thank you.
Good post, Pro. Should be on the cover.
Pilgrim, thanks. Glad you stopped by. (As for the cover, I guess I should have tried to squeeze a comment about "G" spots or something...)

The historical background you provide is, as usual, interesting and appreciated. The aesthetic and historical value of this area is worth protection.

Another important aspect of this issue is a more general problem; it is the ecological long-term effects that this type of mining brings.

Selenium is a naturally occurring chemical element in coal that can be released during the mining process and find its way into nearby aquatic habitats. Selenium in raw coal and overburden is leached out when these materials are exposed to air and water, and the leachate can pose a significant environmental hazard (Lemly 1985a). Mountaintop removal mining tends to maximize hazard because selenium-laden waste rock is disposed as valley fill, which places this selenium source in close proximity to streams and other surface waters. Once in the aquatic environment, waterborne selenium can enter the food chain and reach levels that are toxic to fish and wildlife.

And for those interested in possible causes of autism, this type of mining is often responsible for higher levels of methylmercury in the environment, which several studies have associated with increases in levels of autism and other developmental problems in specific areas where this type of mercury is more abundant.

A study by the University of Texas: PDF

Other studies have been done since that one with very similar results.

In the end, I think you're right, Steve, when you say the cons outweigh the pros for this type of mining. The only thing I was surpirsed by in this is your comment that YOU were surprised by Salazar's response in this matter. Salazer is no friend to the environment, nor to the average citizen. His interests lie in the corporate province.

Highly RATED
Rick, thank you for your contribution on the long term toxic effects of mountaintop removal. As you point out, the impact goes far beyond the aesthetic damage. And you are certainly correct that Salazar's record on the environment is not unblemished, to say the least. Like many lawmakers, particularly from his part of the country, his record is one that favors economic development of resources before long-term protection of them. I had hoped that he would moderate that tendency once he had to answer to more than just the voters of Colorado. I would not have been surprised to see him continue the Bush Administration's hesitance to significantly increase the number of sites being protected by the park service. I was surprised that he would allow sites already under protection to be removed from it. The more visibility this issue gets, however, the more pressure there will be to correct it. At least that is my hope, and the only hope for Blair Mountain.
I loved this post. It is a topic close to my heart. Rarely are the battle lines so clearly drawn in labor history.

RE: "...the delisting resulted from concerns expressed by a majority of property owners on the site, as well as objections from three coal companies headquartered out of state that covet the mountain’s underground riches. " And you can be sure what was out talking to that "majority" before the action. Don't you just love coal companies?

And shame on the West Virginia State Historical Preservation Office.
thanks, Pro, for the history lesson and the alert, I've written to Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service to protest
URGENT ACTION NEEDED BEFORE 11/26. Please let your readers know that the Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, is currently applying for a 554-acre surface mining permit that borders and intrudes into a section of the Blair Mountain battlefield. The application is in the public comment period, letters must be received by November 26th, and Friends of Blair Mountain is asking for your help in generating letters.

The group is pursuing a multi-faceted strategy in stopping this permit from being approved, and yall’s voices are essential. Below is all the information you’ll need to write a strong letter against this application being approved. Letters must be received no later than November 26, 2010.

Four main points:

- Blair Mountain battlefield, site of second largest insurrection in US history, is a major part of American culture.

- The Pine Fork surface mine would negatively impact both the battlefield and the viewshed area of the battlefield, both of which are protected due to the battlefield being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

- The area has not had any archaeological investigations undertaken, and has a high potential for containing significant archaeological resources. A full archaeological survey is needed to assess the extent of archaeological resources in the surface mine permit area.

- With all the other mines in the area, the overall cumulative impact on the Blair Mountain battlefield and surrounding landscape would be severe. Because the topography is integral to understanding the combatant’s movements, it is an archaeological ‘artifact’ in itself and should be protected.

Personal letters are always better, with your own perspective and reasons why you disagree with the permit being issued. But we know that time is limited, and writing letters can be a pain. For those who would rather send a form letter they can print out and sign, then click here.

Letters must include the applicant’s name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc.) and the application number (S-5035-08). See example here. Letters must arrive no later than Nov. 26, 2010, and should be sent to:

Permit Supervisor

WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation

1101 George Kostas Dr.

Logan, WV 25601
Thanks for all you do...