In late August and September of 1921, the largest armed rebellion in the U.S. since the Civil War was mounted in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. Union coal miners gathered, in numbers estimated anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 strong, outside of Charleston. It is perhaps misleading to call them an “army”, for they had few resources and lacked formal military discipline. And yet it would be too cavalier to label the miners a rag-tag gathering. They had leaders, they had arms, they had organization, and they even had supporting groups of doctors and nurses to treat the expected casualties.
The miners’ intention was to march to the southwestern coalfields and free their fellow miners from some of the most abject treatment in the history of American labor. In Mingo, Logan and McDowell counties, miners worked under abominable conditions, were paid next to nothing, had no freedom of speech or assembly, and were killed with impunity by mine guards and local politicos in an atmosphere reminiscent of a third-world dictatorship. In 1921, thousands of miners and their families were living in tents in deplorable conditions, evicted from their homes after having the temerity to join a union. The Miners’ March, as it was called, was set to change all that.
The miners were opposed by a well-armed contingent of mine guards and State Police with rifles and machine guns. These would eventually be joined by 2,000 U.S. Army troops armed with airplanes, bombs, and poison gas. The two forces met at Blair Mountain, in Logan County. The coal company forces held fortified positions along the ridge; the miners labored in the heat of late summer to climb the mountain with hopes of engaging company forces at the summit.
This was the Battle of Blair Mountain.
In the early 1980s I researched the West Virginia mine wars, preparing to write a novel that would eventually become Storming Heaven. I had grown up in the southern West Virginia coalfields and taken mandatory state history courses in both junior high school and college. I had never heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Not until I stumbled onto an account on the back shelves of a local bookstore did I learn about the events that seemed almost unbelievable to me at the time. Clearly it was an incredible story. But had it actually happened?
The book that introduced me to the Battle of Blair Mountain was Bloodletting in Appalachia by Howard B. Lee. Lee had been the state Attorney General at the time of the events he was describing. An unapologetic curmudgeon, Lee found fault with both sides in the conflict. His very crankiness made his account seem more believable to me. Here was a man with no specific ax to grind, only a story to tell.
On subsequent trips to the state archives, I was confronted with the reality of Blair Mountain. Not only was Lee describing actual events, but also the Miners’ March of 1921 had made front-page headlines in the New York Times. Writers and journalists from around the country, including the likes of James M. Cain and Edmund Wilson, had descended on the West Virginia coalfields, and would do so for years. Reporters from national magazines wrote eyewitness accounts, detailing everything from the passwords used by the miners to the caps worn by the nurses traveling with the insurgents.
But I knew it was not enough to do my research in a library, to sit at a machine studying microfilm, or even to talk to the few surviving people who had been children at the time of the Miners’ March. I wanted to see Blair Mountain for myself. The route taken by the miners can still by followed on two-lane roads long since bypassed by freeways.
From the gathering point in the town of Marmet, I drove up Lens Creek to Racine, then on through coal towns with names like Ramage and Clothier. I knew I was getting close to Blair Mountain, but no one had to tell me when I was actually there. The mountain reared up, long and majestic, clearly blocking access. A drive along the creek that paralleled the mountain at its base revealed no “gaps”, no passes through. The main road I had been traveling would eventually snake its way up the mountain’s flank. But with coal company forces blocking the way, and fortifications manned by machine guns lining the top, it would have taken a massive army to breach Blair Mountain.
I saw Blair Mountain on a sunny day much like the one in August 1921, when anger and despair drove thousands of miners toward the summit. The deep shadows of late afternoon shrouded the mountainside, alternating with patches of brilliant sunlight. The shadows seemed alive. Later, at home, I would write a description of the mountain in Storming Heaven:
“Blair Mountain was one of the most powerful mountains I’d ever seen. It sprawled the length of Hewitt Creek and thrust out its arms to push away the punier hills. Shadows rolled across the folded slopes to mark the time of day, and sometimes the folds opened into a cove, seductive, that promised a way across. But there were no passes through.”
Today, many of the mining communities on the approach to Blair Mountain have been destroyed or have fallen into decay. Many of the surrounding mountains have also been destroyed, and the hollows and streams filled in. Mountaintop removal coal mining is decimating the region.
In the hundred odd years since the coal industry came to this part of West Virginia, land has been taken, miners have been worked to death, streams have been polluted, piles of waste have accumulated, children have grown up in poverty. But throughout all the hardships, the hunger, the black lung disease and other illness, and the scarring of the land, the mountains have essentially remained. They were symbols of permanence, strength, hope. No more. Nothing worse can be taken from mountain people than mountains. The resulting loss is destroying the soul of the people.
The destruction of the central Appalachian Mountains robs the region of topsoil, timber, of indigenous plants, of streams, and leaves behind floods, toxic brews of sludge laced with mercury, and flattened plains of inedible grass. But worst of all is the loss of the mountain landscape, those rugged crags that lift the spirits and touch the sky.
If one mountain were to be spared, one peak to bear mute witness to the devastation that has gone on all around, it might be thought that Blair Mountain would be such a summit. Blair Mountain, after all, has been the most dramatic witness to the struggle of legions of coal miners to be free. But Blair Mountain, though recently nominated to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, is also scheduled for destruction by mountaintop removal mining.
To write about the destruction of even one mountain seems more horrific and unbelievable than any work of the imagination. But this is what we have come to in Appalachia today.