Our Common Good

A strip-mined peak (foreground) may be a sign of things to come for Blair Mountain, a portion of which is visible at center.

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.”

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 organizationthat 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.”

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