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.
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.
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.
Security 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 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.
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:
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 (www.FriendsOfBlairMountain.org). 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.