By Bill Kovarik
The fight to preserve West Virginia’s Blair Mountain Battlefield has taken a new turn.
Preservation advocates thought they had won in March 2009 when the site was formally listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places.
However, the site was “de-listed” in December 2009 at the request of state authorities who claimed that re-counted property owners’ opinions supported them.
Preservationists said the recount was flawed and are making plans for a court appeal.
Blair Mountain is the site of a five-day battle between over 10,000 union miners and the coal industry in August 1921. Thousands of shots were exchanged, and an estimated 30 men died.
The battle was “a spontaneous outpouring of rage and grief over conditions in the southern coalfields,” according to Friends of Blair Mountain. The specific spark was the murder of Sheriff Sid Hatfield by coal company detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse. No one was ever charged in the murder.
The miners marched to Logan, W.Va., to express their outrage and rescue imprisoned miners in Mingo County. They were stopped by thousands of paid coal industry employees who had taken up fortified positions at Blair Mountain.
The battle ended peacefully when federal troops arrived. Union miners surrendered their weapons, and most were allowed to go home. About 200 leaders, including union organizer Bill Blizzard, were tried for murder and treason the next year. But a jury refused to convict, and Blair Mountain became a rallying cry for organized labor in the 1920s and 30s.
Historians say the Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War. Hundreds of books and historical papers have been written about the battle.
When a coal company announced plans for a surface mine at Blair Mountain, a grandson of one of the fighting miners who lived near the mountain, Kenny King, began working on preservation efforts.
“I just hated to see it be destroyed,” King said.
The complex process of protecting the historical site began in the 1990s. It became more complex with the state government’s refusal to help King and others, such as, West Virginia University historian Barbara Rasmussen and Appalachian State University archaeologist Harvard Ayers.
For years, the review process bounced back and forth between the West Virginia office of historic preservation and the National Park Service. In 2006, Ayers and King performed archaeological surveys of the battle site. Many others added their support, including the Society for Historical Archeology and the Society of American Archeology.
Cecil Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), said in 2005: “The UMWA has always believed the Blair Mountain battle site should be preserved…What (the miners) did is a source of pride and inspiration to our families, and helps give us the strength to carry on their fight for justice. We will never forget it, nor should America.”
Finally, on March 30, 2009, the Park Service announced that the battlefield site had won a place on the register. Preservationists believed they had won.
Historic significance is not the most important criteria for historic preservation under current federal law. Property owners also have to agree to the listing.
Shortly after the formal listing of Blair Mountain on the national register, West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer Randall Reid-Smith claimed to have discovered eight letters, which had been “unintentionally not counted.” This, Smith claimed, changed the count of landowners to 30 who did not agree with historic preservation and 27 who did.
But in September 2009, Ayers and West Virginia attorney John Kennedy Bailey found serious errors in Reid-Smith’s list. Two property owners who had supposedly objected to historic designation were actually deceased, and ten more property owners had been overlooked. Smith, who is not a trained historian, did not dispute the findings, but refused to reconsider the delisting.
“The West Virginia bureaucracy has ignored any information that contradicts their own cursory and flawed research,” Ayers said.
On Dec. 30, 2009, the National Park Service Interim Keeper of the National Register, Carol Shull, granted the request to delist.
Shull and Smith both refused to comment for this article.
However, a park service web site notes that delisting usually occurs when “property is altered so that it has lost its ability to convey its national significance.” Most examples of delisting include historic houses where there has been a fire or a long period of neglect.
“This action does not stand alone but is part of a deliberate effort to erase Appalachian history,” said Wess Harris, editor of “When Miners March,” a book documenting the union’s side of the battle of Blair Mountain.
“We have been wondering why the State Historic Preservation Officer worked so hard to get the battlefield off the Register list,” said Ayers.
Since it is still eligible for listing, West Virginia state officials said that this status “offers protection from federally funded or licensed adverse actions.”
Not so, according to a February 2010 legal analysis. By law, the state, not the federal government, can decide what should be done with unprotected historical property. This can include issuing mine permits.
The delisting will be appealed in court, and a letter writing campaign to the National Park Service is under way, according to the Friends of Blair Mountain. For more information visit FriendsOfBlairmountain.org.