Blair Mountain: New Archeological Data Heats up Mine Wars


Like his grandfather, Kenny King figured he just had to do something. Hallowed ground was about to be clearcut, bulldozed, and blasted down to rubble. The site of the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain battle between miners and coal company forces would be gone forever.
“I just hated to see it be destroyed,” he said. “Its probably the most important labor or coal mininsite in the state. But it’s not even included in the coal heritage area.”
King was spurred on by the memory of his grandfather, who was one of 10,000 miners who fought in the largest civil conflict in America since the Civil War. So in 1991, King got involved in the fight for historic preservation and has been in the thick of it ever since.
“Kenny is the hero out of all of this because he just kept going after being turned down,” said Regina Hendrix, a member of the Ohio Valley Environmental Commission. “They made it so complicated that there is no way he could ever do it on his own.”
While the fight has taken many twists and turns (See Blair Mountain timeline), the National Park Service turned materials for historic designation back over to the state in May, 2007. Hearings are expected this coming September.
Ordinarily, historic designation when there is this much evidence is no problem. But the Blair Mountain case has been anything but ordinary.
Four or five times the state or federal government has turned down the designation on some technicality, only to have application returned with the technicality corrected.
The historic designation is still on track in part because Prof. Harvard Ayers, working with King, performed detailed archeological studies on the site in 2006 and reported on them this spring. (Ayers is a board member and founder of Appalachian Voices.) West Virginia University historic preservation expert Barbara Rasmussen has also played an important role.
If it is eventually approved, historic designation for the 1,600 acre Blair mountain site will slow, if not stop, plans by Massey coal company subsidiaries for mountaintop removal mining.
It was the summer of 1921 when his grandfather, William King, joined 10,000 other miners to march on Logan, WV, in what has become known as the West Virginia mine wars.
“He was a coal miner all his life, and it was all unionized over in [Cabin Creek], and they had all that trouble down in Matewan,” King said.
Like most miners, William King was sick of the way “detectives” from the coal companies could usurp the law. They could arbitrarily arrest miners, evict them from company houses, freeze their back wages and, when they liked, murder them in cold blood. The “coal guard system” existed outside the law, and when lawmen tried to interfere, they paid the price.
Sid Hatfield was one of these – and his death in 1921 sent William King and thousands of other mines into the hills with weapons in their hands, red bandanas on their necks and fire in their eyes.
William King and about 10,000 fellow coal miners marched on Logan, WV that summer.
“When they killed Sid Hatfield they figured they had to do something,” King said. “There had already been quite a few disputes in Cabin Creek, all the way back to 1912,” he said.
King was young when his grandfather was alive and never got a chance to talk with him about what has become known as the Mine Wars. But he became fascinated over the years, and found himself possessed of the idea.
The land where the battle took place was about to be strip-mined, and he just had to do something about it.
Starting in 1991, King joined advocates of historical preservation and attempted to hold back mining on the site. “If you’re doing the right thing, you can’t quit I guess, you gotta believe in what you‘re doing.”
Now, fifteen years later, the issue is still undecided, but a great deal more is known about Blair mountain.
Last year, King led anthropologist Ayers through the battlefield sites he had come to know. Ayers worked on an archaeology report that was sent in this spring with the renewed application.
“We’ve pretty much corroborated the broad strokes of history,” Ayers said. “We can tell how intense the battles were by how many shell casings there were, 3 or 4 at smallest sites, but in some places we find 100 or 200 casings, and we know there was a really hot fight going on.”
One surprise was a site where coal people were firing a Thompson submachine gun and a lot of others, Ayers said. “We found 27 incoming bullets. That was a pretty good indication that the [miners] were getting pretty close, and we’ve posited that there could be a breech of the line in that one place.”
“When we find those slugs, basically smushed lead, some of them embedded in rotten trees… we know there was some pretty hot, close in bullet
Kenny King is all for underground mining, both at Blair Mountain and in general. He works in the coal industry at a testing lab about eight miles from Blair mountain and coal mining is how he makes his living.
It’s destructive surface mining, or mountaintop removal, that King and others oppose for the Blair site.
“It is true that Blair Mountain cannot survive Mountain Top Removal mining,” said Barbara Rasmussen, an expert in historic preservation at West Virginia University, at an Appalachian Studies Association panel this past March. “It is not true that most of the coal there cannot be recovered by other means.” Probably less than a dozen years worth of coal mining world would be available for a few miners if the mountain were to be leveled by MTR. Underground mining would still be profitable for the companies, she said.
Another aspect of the struggle over Blair mountain involves the question of why it has been so difficult. There is often a lurking suspicion that nominations for historic designations “may be con jobs,” Rassmussen said. “I find this most disheartening.”
In fact, the important stories of ordinary life among working people, black Americans, native Americans and people from Appalachia are often overlooked because there are fewer “things” to memorialize the events.
“If one group’s history is rejected, assaulted, or obliterated in the interest of another’s, then much social violence has been done,” Rasmussen said. “We must preserve the historic places associated with important cultural passages as well as our buildings.”
The review process that has now bounced back from the National Park Service to the state of West Virginia “must be as fair to the memory of those who fought there and as fair to the American labor movement as it has thus far been to the coal industry, but I am not sure it will be,” Rassmussen said. “Unless Appalachians everywhere unite to support this important historic preservation initiative, Blair Mountain and all that it represents may be wiped out of American memory. I cannot envision a more violent thing.”


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