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September 17, 2010

Reviving the Battle on Blair Mountain

BlairMTN gathering
Locals gather to discuss the fate of Blair Mountain. Photo credit: Jessica Yarnall.

Imagine a mini-mall paved over Gettysburg. Or a nuclear waste dump in the middle of the Delaware River where General George Washington led his soldiers.

The coal industry knows no boundaries, and the preservation of American history and heritage is no exception. That's why Blair Mountain, site of the country's biggest, most violent open class post-Civil War battle, was delisted by the National Register of Historic Places, which protects and preserves such landmark places.

In 1921, a time of horrible work conditions in Appalachia, 10,000 armed coal miners, law enforcement officers, and hired strike breakers clashed at Blair Mountain in Logan County over the right to unionize in southern West Virginia. Around an estimated 100 people were killed and many more injured.

Shell casings
Kenny King finds shell casings leftover from the famous battle in 1921. Photo credit: Jessica Yarnall.

Since the site of the battle was listed as a historic place in April 2009 by the National Register of Historic Places -- which is run by the National Park Service -- historians and archeologists have combed and studied the area. But the National Register made an abrupt and inexplicable about-face, taking Blair Mountain off the list in December and exposing it to profiteering Big Coal executives.

Coal companies have targeted Blair for surface mining and mountaintop removal, the practice of blowing off mountaintops. It would dismember the entire area. If something like that were to happen, it would further erase its significance. It'd be the ultimate quashing of the historic labor movement of West Virginia.

MTR near Blair
An aerial shot of mountaintop removal that took place near Blair Mountain. Photo courtesy ilovemountains.org.

"These days the coal industry is for the most part a non-union operation,” said Bill Price, Sierra Club’s environmental justice organizer in Charleston. “The coal industry would like nothing better than to see this very unique and significant place in labor history destroyed. The coal industry does not care for the history, culture of West Virginia or any part of Appalachia.”

Last week, the Sierra Club, joined by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Friends of Blair Mountain, and the West Virginia Labor History Association, sued the National Park Service to get Blair Mountain back on the list of historic places. What remains unclear is how it was taken off the list in the first place.

“The nomination of Blair Mountain as a historic place has always been a political issue,” Price said. “Unfortunately Governor Joe Manchin has never taken a position to support it. We believe the root cause of the change taken by the Park Service was a directive from higher up in the governor’s administration.”

There are signs that the industry is champing at the bit. In July, locals discovered that areas of Blair Mountain were disturbed by bulldozers. Topsoil was removed and trees uprooted. The Logan County district attorney has yet to investigate what happened.

Damage on Blair 2
Evidence of damage from a bulldozer on Blair Mountain. Photo credit: Bill Price.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club, other environmental organizations, and historians are hoping the courts will clear up the reasoning behind NPS’s move. For people who want to get involved, they should write the National Register and  Governor Joe Manchin’s office.

“And if they’re in the area, they can come and visit Blair and see for themselves what all the fuss is about,” Price said.

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