Tag Archives: Battle of Blair Mountain

Judge refuses to have Blair Mountain put back on the National Register

Let’s imagine for a minute that I blew up Cemetery Ridge.  Just hypothetically, I mean.  Imagine that Gettysburg National Military Park up and decided to sell off some land, and I bought Cemetery Ridge and then bulldozed away all the soil, and then I drilled down into the rock and placed some explosives and then just blasted it all to smithereens.

If that scenario disturbs you, consider this: Last week a federal judge, siding with coal companies, refused to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain put back on the National Register of Historic Places.

You’d think a place where one of the biggest armed uprisings in American history happened, and one of the most significant historic sites in Appalachia, would get a little more respect.

Why did Blair Mountain get removed from the register to begin with?  Believe it or not, Randall Reid-Smith, West Virginia’s State Historic Preservation Officer, asked for it to be taken off, claiming that most of the property owners objected to the designation. When a real estate lawyer took a closer look at these dissenting property owners, a funny thing happened.

The list of objectors, Bailey discovered, included two dead men—one of whom had perished nearly three decades earlier—as well as a property owner who had sold her land years before the nomination process. In addition, Bailey identified 13 property owners who did not appear on the SHPO list at all. “The final count we reached was 63 landowners and only 25 objectors,” Ayers said.

Hey, if two guys came back from the hereafter and asked you to get a site taken off the National Register of Historic Places, you’d probably get right on it too, wouldn’t you?

There’s a sickening irony here; the Battle of Blair Mountain happened because the miners got fed up with the coal companies’ rapacity, and now the site itself is threatened by coal companies’ rapacity.  Picture an original safe house on the Underground Railroad being torn down to build a whites-only restaurant, and you’d have an analogous situation.

If you care about historic ground, now would be a good time to let some elected officials know it.

After the battle, the miners of Blair Mountain hand over their guns. West Virginia Division of Culture and History (wvculture.org)

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Remember the biggest American uprising since 1865?

You know, the one where coal companies and the armed forces teamed up against striking miners in an honest-to-goodness battle?  If it doesn’t ring a bell, here’s a quick refresher.

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What’s Blair Mountain worth?

One of America’s largest labor uprisings, and the biggest armed civil insurrection since the Civil War, started ninety years ago—and there’s an excellent chance you’ve never heard of it.

Thousands of West Virginia miners, thoroughly sick of horrid working conditions and the coal companies’ efforts to prevent them from organizing, squared off against forces led by Sheriff Don Chafin at a ridge called Blair Mountain.  The ensuing “Battle of Blair Mountain” deserved its moniker, for it was a battle in every sense of the word—a five-day armed struggle along a fifteen-mile front, in which dozens died and hundreds were injured, complete with the deployment of air power.  (Pilots hired by the sheriff dropped bombs on the miners’ positions, and the Army Air Force flew surveillance.)

The miners nearly broke through the coal companies’ enforcers, but finally disbanded and headed to their homes when the presence of the U.S. Army tipped the balance against them.  Some of them faced indictments for murder, conspiracy, and treason afterward. Appalachian History has a more detailed post on the affair, which is well worth reading; the Battle of Blair Mountain is also the subject of a recent book by Robert Shogan.

What I find most striking about the story is the fact that it’s largely unknown.  I’m ashamed to admit that until a few years ago I’d never heard of it myself, despite the fact that I’m a history aficionado who’s lived most of his life in Appalachia.  How in the world has one of the largest and most important civil uprisings in the nation’s history—planes took to the air against American citizens on our own soil, for crying out loud—been such a neglected historical subject?  Is it because it happened in a region that most Americans either ignore entirely or (if they think about it all) treat with contempt and disdain?  I hope the answer is not so simple as that, but I’m not optimistic.

These days Blair Mountain is a battlefield again, but the modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain is over preservation.  A few years ago Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but it was subsequently removed.  It needs to be reinstated. The site is threatened by surface mining, which would destroy this historic landscape and the archaeological resources it contains.

Let me pause here to state that I’m not opposed to the coal industry’s very existence, as some people are.  At the same time, though, I don’t think it should be immune from criticism.  Discussion about coal shouldn’t be a zero-sum game in which any critique of the industry automatically means that you’re against fossil fuels or gainful employment.  I stress this because I don’t want readers to take my endorsement of efforts to preserve Blair Mountain as a denunciation of coal or coal miners.  My attitude toward the coal industry is mixed; I’m glad that it provides jobs to people of this area, and as an energy source it’s indispensable.  (A popular bumper sticker in my neck of the woods reads, DON’T LIKE COAL? DON’T USE ELECTRICITY.)  At the same time, though, I’m also aware that it’s a problematic industry that has created and continues to create a great many problems.  Appalachia’s relationship to coal reminds me of what Jefferson said about America’s relationship to slavery: “But, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

At the end of the day, this is about a specific place that’s very special.  Blair Mountain is an important historic site, and should be designated as such and protected.  Check out the Friends of Blair Mountain website and see what all the fuss is about.

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