Historic Blair Mountain Prepares for Its Last Stand
by Regina Hendrix,OVEC board member
In July 1921, Matewan mayor Sid Hatfield was shot and killed on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse.
As captured in the movie Matewan, Hatfield was a fervent supporter of coal miners and their efforts to unionize. His murder galvanized miners simmering frustration into an armed protest to unionize West Virginias coal mines.
The shooting war that followed in Logan County during August and September of 1921 became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, where 10,000 coal miners rose up against state officials and armed federal troops in an undeclared civil war that lasted ten days.
Although the battle did not achieve the immediate goal to unionize the Logan coalfields, the United Mine Workers of America won a moral victory, as the public at large learned of the everyday injustices endured by working men and women in a socio-political environment dominated by private, coal company interests.
These political, economic and cultural forces shaped the power structure of 20th Century America.
Union efforts in the area were eventually vindicated with the 1933 passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which legalized the right of coal miners to join a union without the fear of reprisals from mine owners or operators. Widespread unionization followed in the West Virginia coalfields.
Several recent events have heightened local and national interest in the site of the battle:
Robert Shogan, an author of national prominence, has just released a new book, The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of Americas Largest Labor Uprising. He visited Charleston, Charles Town, and Logan in June 2004 to promote the book and to tour the battlefield site.
The Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save Our Heritage has been working for the past three years to prevent the demolition of the historic jailhouse where a number of the Blair Mountain coal miners, including leader Bill Blizzard, were imprisoned prior to their treason trial in 1922.
Route 17 in Logan County has been designated a National Scenic Byway.
But the historic site of the Battle of Blair Mountain remains largely unrecognized and unprotected.
Late last year, I met Kenny King, an OVEC member and a resident of Logan County whose ancestors took part in this battle. Kenny has been exploring the Blair Mountain area and documenting artifacts from this site for over 10 years. He has compiled an impressive record of the artifacts that still dot the battlefields landscape.
Since 1980 there have been several efforts to have the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain designated an Historic Place. For various reasons, none of these efforts have been carried to a successful conclusion.
In order to present an application for the National Register, Kenny needed assistance with the mapping, aerial photography and the historical narrative.
That assistance is now being provided by Friends of the Mountains, a coalition of environmental groups of which OVEC is a member. (The FOM group meets monthly to coordinate efforts and activism against mountaintop removal in Appalachia).
The FOM coalition has procured the services of Frank Unger, a historian from Walton, WV. Frank and Kenny have done the research, the mapping and the historical narrative, which has been submitted to the WV State Historic Preservation Office for preliminary review and recommendation.
The application will be presented to the Archives and History Commission. The Commission will make a recommendation to the National Park Service for placement of this site on the National Register of Historic Places.
We are indebted to Susan Lapis of SouthWings, who volunteered to fly our photographer, Chuck Wyrostock, over the battle site while he did the photography required for the nomination.