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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Still Fighting Labor’s Historic Battle of Blair Mountain

Air Date: Week of October 8, 2010

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Blair Mountain, in West Virginia’s coal country, was the scene of the most important event you probably never heard of. The 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain pitted thousands of union miners against machinegun toting coal operators. Historians call that five-day battle the largest armed insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us about a new battle for Blair Mountain, one between those who want the site protected and a mountaintop removal coalmine.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The battle over mountaintop removal just heated up. Coal companies and West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin have sued the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA wants to curb the destructive form of mining, while the coal industry is trying to get a permit for what would be the largest mountain top removal project ever. It’s at Arch Coal’s mine in Logan County, West Virginia.

In the mountain state, mining is the political issue, and in the race for the US Senate, Govenor Manchin, a Democrat, and Republican businessman John Raese are angling to show who is the best friend of coal.

Certainly, it’s not third-party candidate Jesse Johnson. Johnson is among those fighting to preserve the Logan site. This isn’t the first battle that’s been fought over these mountain ridges. They were also the scene of a bloody, nearly forgotten chapter in American labor history, where, as L-O-E’s Jeff Young tells it, mining rubble now threatens to bury the memory once and for all.

[MOUNTAIN NOISE, CRICKETS]

YOUNG: It wasn’t something Jimmy Weekley learned in school. When he was a child the state erased the Battle of Blair Mountain from textbooks. But Weekley knows the history the way many people here in West Virginia’s coal country do: from stories passed down in family lore.

WEEKLEY: I heard many, many stories on it. This was the largest battle.

YOUNG: Weekley, a painfully thin, chain-smoking 70 year old, stands on the ridge not far from his home. It’s where union miners and coal operators once met in one of labor’s bloodiest battles.

WEEKLEY: See the North was already unionized but the South wasn’t, so they started a march to come here.

YOUNG: Now, Weekley’s among a handful of local people working to save a mountain and resurrect a forgotten piece of American history.

[WOMAN SINGING: “Come all you poor workers good news to you I’ll tell,
how the good old union is coming here to dwell. Which side are you on, which side are you on?”]

YOUNG: In late august 1921 some ten thousand union coal miners armed themselves with hunting rifles and World War I weapons and started to march.

GREEN: There’s been nothing quite like it in modern American history. It was the largest civil insurrection in the United States since the civil war.

YOUNG: Labor historian James Green at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is working on a book about the battle. Green says the marchers were heading to Mingo County, which was controlled by non-union coal operators.

GREEN: Martial law had been declared in Mingo County, union organizers were put in jail, they were not allowed jury trials, no one was allowed to even read the newspaper in Mingo County. And, they were determined to march on Mingo County to liberate their brothers from prison.

YOUNG: To get there, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. That’s where coal operators had a mercenary force of their own led by a sheriff named Don Chafin.

GREEN: Chafin and his men had fortified Blair Mountain with machine guns and their own force of over three thousand men. So it really was a full-scale battle and what journalists at the time referred to as a virtual civil war. And they did start shooting at each other.

YOUNG: The Battle raged five days. At least 16 died. Coal operators dropped crude bombs from biplanes-- the first aerial bombing of US civilians. It took federal troops to end the fighting—18 hundred of them, the largest peacetime deployment against civil unrest.

But maybe the most remarkable thing about the Battle of Blair Mountain is that very few Americans have even heard of it. In West Virginia, Jimmy Weekley and his allies want to change that.

[SOUND OF CRUNCHING LEAVES]

YOUNG: Weekley walks Blair Mountain’s ridge with Tom Rule, a photographer and history buff, and Jesse Johnson, a filmmaker and political candidate. They begin sifting through the leaf litter.

RULE: Well, we were up here the other day and we came up with a bunch of…

JOHNSON: Shell casings!

RULE: With a bunch of shell casings right in this little area.

JOHNSON: You know, there’s more than a million rounds of spent cartridges laying all over this. And you know, we had metal detector hits going all the way up this ridgeline here.

YOUNG: The age, type and location of the spent shells tell Johnson he’s on the very spot where miners and mercenaries fought it out nearly ninety years ago.

Johnson’s connection runs deep. His great, great uncle was among the union marchers.

JOHNSON: You know, I feel honored to be here and I feel humbled to walk this hallowed ground. It’s no different than walking on any of the great battlefields from the civil war or from revolutionary war except this particular battle was for the people and giving people their rights.

YOUNG: Johnson thinks Blair Mountain could be a tourist destination if it got the right protection and promotion. He’s trying to make it an issue in his long-shot campaign for the US Senate. Both the Democratic and Republican candidates are strong coal supporters.

Johnson’s a candidate for the Mountain Party, which formed in opposition to mountaintop removal and that mining puts Blair Mountain’s past and present on a collision course.

[SOUND OF TRUCK DRIVING BY]

YOUNG: A short walk from the battle site, Johnson, Rule and Weekley watch trucks loaded with drilling and blasting equipment climb the hill.

RULE: And they’re blasting up there?

WEEKLEY: Yup. They’re coming right this way with the mountaintop removal job. Going right on through.

YOUNG: Arch Coal company wants to expand its mountaintop removal mine to blast away the remaining ridge and expose billions of dollars worth of coal. At peak production that could employ some 230 miners. But Rule argues that deep mines could get the coal without burying the historic site.

RULE: It’s worse than burying it, it’s just completely obliterating it. Doing away with it altogether. They’ll ruin an opportunity for a national battlefield monument, which could be a real boon to the economy.

YOUNG: The mining added urgency to the campaign to protect Blair Mountain. But that effort has taken some strange twists and turns. Appalachian State University archeology professor Harvard Ayers worked to get the National Park Service to recognize the site.

And in March 2009, it paid off. Ayers says, the Park Service put Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places.

AYERS: We popped champagne corks and celebrated across the Appalachians to see this wonderful and important archeological site finally protected.

YOUNG: But Ayers says the celebration did not last long.

AYERS: It lasted about six or seven days. [Laughs] On April sixth, the state historic preservation officer sent a letter to the National Park Service saying, ‘you know guys, we just screwed up, and we just happened to find some things that got lost on our desk and now it turns out there are more people who object than don’t object.’

YOUNG: Park Service rules say that if more than half of the affected landowners object, a site cannot be on the National Register.

And in December, the Register’s Keeper removed Blair Mountain from the list. Ayers thought that late discovery of new landowners seemed fishy. So he hired a real estate lawyer to track down deeds and tax records.

AYERS: Lo and behold he found that there were two dead people on there, one who had been dead for 20-something years. It was amazing. And taking those numbers then, we found that indeed, the state had fudged the numbers.

YOUNG: According to Ayers’s list, most landowners support putting the site on the register. Ayers, along with local groups, the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation sued the Park Service.

A Park Service spokesperson declined to comment. At the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office, deputy director Susan Pierce says her department just followed the rules.

PIERCE: We provided lists of property owners. There’s a been a lot of talk regarding the list that may or may not have included folks that were deceased, however we’ve moved forward from that.

YOUNG: Pierce says the site is still eligible for listing on the register. She wants the Park Service to start over with the nomination.

But a petition circulating among historians rejects that approach, and urges the Park Service to restore Blair Mountain to the national register. Historian James Green is among the three dozen academics, artists and filmmakers who have signed on.

GREEN: This is where an important battle was fought for industrial freedom. And to not only forget about it and leave it out of textbooks, but then wipe out the physical reality of that place is also to eliminate a very important memory from the national landscape.

[SOUND OF COAL TRUCKS ON HIGHWAY]

YOUNG: A coal truck roars to the foot of Blair Mountain, through the little community of Blair—or what’s left of it. Jimmy Weekley walks a grassy roadside lot where houses once stood.

WEEKLY: Well you see all the empty spaces here, there was one, two, three houses here. There’s one, two… [counting as he walks off]

YOUNG: A little more than a decade ago there were nearly five hundred homes in Blair.

Now, there are about 40. Weekley says it’s due to the mountaintop removal mining. The constant noise and dust from blasting and excavation took a toll. Then coal companies bought out landowners. Weekley has stayed put.

WEEKLEY: My price? It can’t be sold. I lived there 70 years, sir. They offered me $2 million for it and I turned it down.

YOUNG: Two million dollars!

WEEKLY: Yes sir.

YOUNG: I mean, that’s a pretty plot, don’t get me wrong, it’s really pretty, but two million dollars seems pretty rich!

WEEKLY: Not rich enough for me.

[TRUCK PASSING BY]

YOUNG: If Arch Coal gets its EPA permit, it could mine more than two thousand acres, bending in a horseshoe shape right around Weekley’s little plot of land.

After that, the wooded hills and stream he grew up along would look like the mined-out sites nearby. Weekley points to one across the valley.

WEEKLY: Look over here to this place right here, you don’t see no mountain ranges, it’s all flat. Ten square miles over there. Now, that’s what they’re wanting to do here.

And I’ll be damned if I’m gonna sit up there and let the son of a b****es cover me up! They ain’t gonna do it!

YOUNG: For most of America, what happened on Blair Mountain is long forgotten. But here in Appalachia, it’s a battle that’s still being fought. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young, in Blair, West Virginia.

 

Links

Read more of the history and the petition circulating among historians at Friends of Blair Mountain

Sierra Club statement on its lawsuit against the National Park Service

West Virginia History and Archives collection on Blair Mtn.

NPS National Register of Historic Places

UMass Professor of Labor History James Green

 

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