Written by Sharee L. Williamson
For many of us, the story of the labor movement is not the most familiar part of US history. Relatively few Americans have heard of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, where the largest civil insurrection in American history, second only to the Civil War, was fought between at least 10,000 mine workers and “defenders” comprised of local law enforcement officers, volunteers, and enforcers on the payroll of coal companies. From August 25 through September 2, 1921 these two sides clashed along the ridges of Blair Mountain over working conditions and the miners’ right to unionize. In 2006, the National Trust called attention to the site – and the threat of the site’s destruction through surface mining – by naming Blair Mountain as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Now, 90 years after the historic event, organizations fighting to preserve the mountain – including the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Friends of Blair Mountain – have filed a petition to declare the site off-limits to surface mining. Local advocates are also commemorating the Battle for the first time through a week-long march and rally from June 5-11, 2011.
The Battle of Blair Mountain originated out of the escalating labor conflicts during the industrial revolution. During this time, the country’s energy needs increased enormously and the coal industry was the primary provider of the raw material needed to fuel this huge surge in economic growth. Unfortunately, the workers providing the human power to fuel this growth did not share in the benefits from the economic boom. Instead, the coal miners, who faced long hours and dangerous working conditions, were systematically victimized by the policies of the coal operators.
The coal operators maintained control of their employees through the use of the “company town” system. Company towns provided housing and stores and maintained private law enforcement officers. The ostensible purpose for this system was to ensure adequate housing and access to goods for the miners working in remote areas, but in practice the system served to lock the miners into a form of indentured servitude. Miners lived in dormitories owned by the company and had the rent automatically deducted from their wages. They were paid in vouchers redeemable only at the company stores where goods were sold at inflated prices, referenced in this classic Merle Travis song “Sixteen Tons.” Attempts to unionize or to strike were often met with force. In this cultural context, the uprising of thousands of coal miners from across Appalachia was courageous and desperate. And at Blair Mountain, the tensions peaked as miners picked up arms to fight for improvements in their working and living conditions.
The current fight to save Blair Mountain has brought together a diverse coalition of preservation, environmental, and labor union advocates including the National Trust, the Sierra Club, Friends of Blair Mountain, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Labor History Association, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. These organizations have banded together to pursue a broad advocacy strategy to protect the Battlefield site.
On June 3, 2011, the entire coalition filed a petition under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act seeking to have Blair Mountain and its surrounding areas designated as “unsuitable” for surface coal mining. Although surface mining of Blair Mountain would result in the complete destruction of the historic site, underground mining in the area could be a viable and less destructive alternative. In recent years strip mining via mountaintop removal has become a preferred mining method for the coal industry because, despite its often disastrous environmental consequences, it is cheaper for the mine operator. If the National Trust and the coalition partners are successful in designating Blair Mountain as unsuitable for surface mining, a strong precedent would be created through a seldom-used provision in the law recognizing that some places are simply not appropriate for surface mining.
On the advocacy front, the Friends of Blair Mountain have organized a multi-day march from June 5-11 to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1921 Battle. The marchers will cover 50 miles over 5 days from Marmet, WV to the town of Blair, WV. On June 11, 2011, the march will culminate in a Rally and Day of Action. There is still time to participate in the Rally day. Details can be found at www.appalachiarising.org or www.marchonblairmountain.org.
Despite the efforts to save Blair Mountain, its future remains very uncertain. We encourage anyone interested in helping to preserve the battlefield to join National Trust staff and hundreds of others at the Rally on June 11. And we will continue to provide updates here on the ongoing fight over the fate of this important place.
Sharee L. Williamson is a Legal Fellow at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.