A Fight for a Mountain
Groups Sue To Protect West Virginia's Blair Mountain Battlefield
By Darrin Youker | Online Only | Jan. 10, 2011
The Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody fight over the right to unionize, took place in the hills and hollows of southern West Virginia during four days in 1921. As many as 10,000 coal miners faced off against police and armed representatives of the mine operators, and evidence of the clash—guns, spent shell casings, and other artifacts—can still be found in the soil along the 10-mile-long ridge of the mountain. Yet beneath that same ridge lies a valuable vein of coal, the proposed extraction of which has led in recent years to the second battle of Blair Mountain, pitting coal operators against preservationists who want to keep the historic site intact.
In March 2009, Blair Mountain was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In December 2009, however, the site was removed from the register, with West Virginia officials arguing that the listing had been made improperly.
In response, the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Friends of Blair Mountain, the West Virginia Labor History Association, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy have sued the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service (which administers the National Register), asking a federal judge to restore Blair Mountain to the list. The plaintiffs believe that the National Park Service violated its own regulations in delisting the site, because the list of owners within the nominated area was improperly altered to reflect real estate transactions that occurred after notice of the nomination, in violation of National Register regulations. The unlawfully revised list had the effect of altering the calculation of owners who objected to the nomination, converting a minority group of objectors into a majority.
The National Trust announced last month that it has joined the lawsuit. "We regret that legal action had to be taken against the National Park Service, but Blair Mountain is a key landmark of American history that demands the special protection of a National Register listing," Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a Dec. 30 statement.
At the heart of the latest skirmish are permit applications submitted by coal operators to surface mine Blair Mountain. Last summer, locals reported that coal companies' bulldozers damaged at least one historically significant site at the southern base of the mountain. If further mining takes place, the chance of preserving the battlefield would be threatened, says Barbara Rasmussen, a West Virginia historian who has extensively researched Blair Mountain. "If the mountain is gone, what is there to help us remember?" Rasmussen says.
The battle was one of the seminal moments in the history of the labor movement in America. In the early 20th century, representatives from the United Mine Workers of America tried repeatedly to unionize the southern coal fields, resulting in periodic gun battles with guards hired by mine owners. In late August 1921, miners armed with rifles and pistols started marching into Logan and Mingo counties and into the hills and valleys of Blair Mountain. They were met by sheriff's deputies sympathetic to the coal companies, amassed atop the mountain ridge, armed with rifles and machine guns. More than a million rounds of ammunition were fired, and between 40 and 70 men lost their lives before federal troops arrived on Sept. 2, at which point, the miners retreated, not wanting to fire on army regulars.
"That was their finest hour," says Harvard Ayers, an anthropology professor at Appalachian State University, of the miners. "They were willing to lay down their lives for better working conditions."
It wasn't until 1935, with the passage of the Wagner Act, that West Virginia miners were allowed to unionize. "Blair Mountain is of interest to anyone who has Social Security or disability pay," Rasmussen says. "All of those things were brought to the nation because of the labor movement. Working people everywhere owe something to those who made that stance."
Blair Mountain should be preserved for the same reason that Civil War battlefields have been protected, says Nell Ziehl, a program officer for the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which in 2006 named the site one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
"When you stand on Blair Mountain, you can see where the defenders would have been stationed," Ziehl says. "You can fully comprehend how the battle went down."
In 2006, Ayers conducted an archaeological excavation on a portion of the Blair Mountain battlefield, discovering bullets and casings that suggested the miners had advanced much closer to a line of sheriffs' deputies than previously thought. "To find evidence like that shows how archaeology can find what the history books have not recorded," Ayers says. "This site should be a National Historic Site."
Though surface mining would result in the destruction of countless artifacts, as well as the battlefield landscape and topography, preservationists do not object to deep mining underneath the mountain as a means of harvesting coal. Indeed, one possible compromise, Ziehl says, may be to allow coal companies to engage in underground mining while leaving the ridgeline of the mountain untouched.
Coal companies own a large portion of the approximately 1,600 acres that make up the Blair Mountain battlefield, but another 60 landowners also have a foothold. (A site can only be listed on the National Register if the majority of landowners do not object to the listing.) Ayers says that, when Blair Mountain was initially nominated for the register, fewer than half of the battlefield's landowners objected to the listing. Within a week, West Virginia submitted a new list, showing that about 30 landowners objected, Ayers says.
Ayers and preservationists reviewed the West Virginia list and found several errors, including the names of missing and deceased property owners on the list of objectors, as well as people who no longer owned land on the mountain. The lawsuit soon followed. "We are all holding our breath that a judge will hear our case," Ayers says.
The case has potential implications for the National Register nomination process throughout the country. "Counting objections to a National Register nomination is analogous to a vote by stockholders; there's a 'record date' that determines who is entitled to vote. If you bought or sold your shares after that 'record date,' it doesn't change whether you're on the list of those entitled to vote," explains Elizabeth Merritt, deputy general counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "National Register objections are supposed to work the same way; there's a 90-day window of time before the official notice of the nomination when the list of owners eligible to vote is compiled. If the coal companies are allowed to alter that list by buying property after the 90-day time window, then the whole process of counting objections would lose its integrity and be susceptible to vote-buying."
Darrin Youker is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.
Darrin Youker is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.