Coal Firms to Strip-Mine Historic Battlefield?

Preservationists fight uphill battle for West Virginia mountain, site of labor-rights clash.

On a sultry August morning in 1921, some 15,000 coal miners converged at the foot of the steep, brambly slopes of West Virginia's Blair Mountain. On a high ridge above, coal industry forces, private detectives, and state police officers peered out from fortified positions, training Thompson submachine guns and high-powered rifles on the men below.

After years of violent confrontations with mine operators in West Virginia coalfields, the miners were marching to Mingo County, West Virginia, to free miners imprisoned by state authorities and unionize workers who lived in dire poverty in company towns. But the 1,952-foot-tall (595-meter-tall) Blair Mountain stood in the marchers' path. So the miners—armed with machine guns and other weapons, and wearing red bandannas around their necks—started up the slopes.

The ensuing battle, the second largest civil insurrection in U.S. history, lasted about five days and claimed dozens of lives. And while the miners eventually decided to lay down their arms when federal troops arrived, the battle of Blair Mountain focused national attention on the oppressive company towns of West Virginia and dangerous mines, resulting in part from lagging state safety regulations.

Twelve years later the federal government passed an act giving workers the right to form unions and bargain collectively, and the United Mine Workers of America dispatched its organizers across the United States. Blair Mountain, said Barbara Rasmussen, a historic preservation consultant in Morgantown, West Virginia, "was the flash point. This was where it all boiled over."

(Related: "The High Cost of Cheap Coal.")

Second Battle of Blair Mountain

Today, Blair Mountain is again the focus of a pitched battle—this time pitting preservationists against coal companies. Subsidiaries of two of the United States' largest coal producers—Arch Coal, Inc., and Massey Energy Company, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine that in April claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia—hold permits to blast and strip-mine huge chunks of the upper slopes and ridge of Blair Mountain, removing much of the mountaintop. (See mountaintop-removal mining pictures.)

This strip mining, some say, would bring welcome employment to struggling local communities. "Mining-occupation jobs are the highest paid [blue-collar jobs] in our region, if not in the country," said Jason Bostic, vice-president of the West Virginia Coal Association, an organization that represents coal-mine operators, "and the economic effects ripple out from there."

But many local residents are incensed by the devastation left by mountaintop-removal operations elsewhere in West Virginia. And they deeply oppose any such operation on Blair Mountain, seen as one of the most important historic sites in the U.S. labor movement. "It's like they're trying to destroy anything that the union had to do with," said retired West Virginia coal miner Paul Nelson. "I think they want to destroy Blair Mountain and all memory of it."

(Watch a time-lapse of satellite pictures showing the spread of a mountaintop-mining operation in one West Virginia county.)

Artifacts Unearthed

The president of the United Mineworkers of America, Cecil Roberts, has called publicly for the protection of the entire battleground. "Blair Mountain," he noted in a formal statement in 2005, "stands as a pivotal event in American history, where working men and women stood up to the lawless coal barons of the early 20th century and their private armies and fought for their rights as Americans and indeed, the rights of working families all over the world."

To protect the mountain's historic battlefield, an informal coalition of concerned citizens, archaeologists, historians, and environmentalists from the Sierra Club are now fighting to list Blair Mountain in the National Register of Historic Places—a battle hampered, they say, by interference from a state government hooked on tax revenue from the coal industry.

Two leaders in the movement to protect the mountain are Harvard Ayers, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and Kenneth King, a local avocational archaeologist. In the summer of 2006, they put together a small team and began a three-week field survey of Blair Mountain, searching for traces of the historic battle.

Two previous archaeological surveys, commissioned Arch Coal, had recorded little evidence of the fighting, leading many to conclude that the battleground had been heavily disturbed by loggers, collectors, and others. But Ayers, a researcher experienced in Civil War archaeology, wanted to take another look.

Walking along the upper slopes and the 1,599-acre (647-hectare) ridge between the mountain's north and south crests, the team mapped 15 combat sites and discovered more than a thousand artifacts, from rifle and shotgun shell casings to coins and batteries.

Moreover, the sites, buried beneath two to three inches (five to eight centimeters) of topsoil, revealed little sign of disturbance. In one site, for example, the team found a tight grouping of 13 shell casings, each fired by the same gun. "If these casings had been stirred around and disturbed," Ayers said, "they wouldn't have all been lying there together."

Reversal of Fortune

Strongly impressed by the integrity of the site, Ayers and his colleagues stored the artifacts locally and nominated Blair Mountain for listing on the National Register for Historic Places, a measure that would prohibit any strip mining on the site. And when Janet Matthews, then Keeper of the Register, announced in the early spring of 2009 that Blair Mountain was officially listed, the coalition celebrated, convinced that they had succeeded in preserving a lasting memorial.

But one week later, West Virginia's State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) Randall Reid-Smith, a political appointee, formally requested that Blair Mountain be taken off the register. A majority of Blair Mountain property owners, he claimed, opposed the listing.

Those who fought to preserve Blair Mountain were shocked. "But I got busy," Ayers said, "because I was distraught." Suspecting errors in Reid-Smith's list of property owners and objectors, the archaeologist hired a West Virginia real estate lawyer, John Kennedy Bailey, to pore over tax records, property deeds, death records, and other relevant documents.

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.

The archaeologist submitted these findings and the pertinent records to the SHPO and to the office of the Keeper of the Register. But the new findings failed to trigger a comprehensive investigation. Susan Pierce, West Virginia's Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer, concluded that the information Bailey had provided was insufficient for an accurate assessment of the property-owner list. Moreover, she determined that his findings had arrived too late under SHPO regulations.

In December 2009, Paul Loether, Chief of the National Register of Historic Places, officially accepted the SHPO list of property owners and objectors. The task of evaluating West Virginia property records, Loether explained, was the sole responsibility of the SHPO. Interim Keeper of the Register Carol Shull then officially removed Blair Mountain from the historic-places list.

The preservationists were stunned. "My sense is that if we can't protect this mountain, we can't protect any mountain," said Denise Giardina, West Virginia State University's writer-in-residence and a novelist who has published a book on the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain.

(Related: "Coal Mining Causing Earthquakes, Study Says.")

New Offensive

Today the coal companies applaud Loether's decision. The events of 1921, noted Massey Energy spokesperson Blair Gardner, "do not dictate—and the federal National Historic Preservation Act in no manner supports—an outcome that treats the entire nominated area as a shrine that may be visited by the curious, but unused and undeveloped by those who actually own it."

Arch Coal spokesperson Kim Link noted, "we respect the decision of the National Register to remove Blair Mountain from the list of historic sites," but she declined to answer questions on the company's specific plans for mining the mountain.

The preservationists haven't given up yet. Only a listing on the National Register, Ayers said, can "do justice to the men who fought and died on Spruce Ridge Fork [on Blair Mountain] almost 90 years ago." So Ayers and his colleagues are now launching a new offensive, mounting a major public letter-writing campaign to Carol Shull, the interim Keeper of the National Register, to relist Blair Mountain, and contacting the Archaeological Conservatory, a nonprofit organization that purchases and preserves important endangered archaeological sites.

Moreover, for many in the region who view coal companies as intent on leveling the mountains of Appalachia, the miners who fought on Blair Mountain have become potent symbols of resistance. "The activists are all wearing red bandannas around their necks," said Brandon Nida, a University of California, Berkeley, doctoral student who has been studying the modern fight, "just like the miners did in 1921."

Strip mining operations on one part of the battlefield could conceivably begin at any time, and while Ayers, King, and other historic preservationists are clearly in for a tough battle, they vow to fight every step of the way. "I know I'm doing the right thing," concluded King, whose grandfather marched with the miners. "I'm trying to save some of our heritage."

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