Blair Mountain, West Virginia Still Shows the Grip of the Coal IndustryHistorians in the News
tags: violence, memorials, West Virginia, labor history, public history, Coal Mining, Blair Mountain, United Mine Workers
Blair Mountain, in southern West Virginia, is a bit under 2,000 feet tall, dense with trees and trilling birds. In some ways, it’s like any of the other pretty ridges in the vast Appalachian ranges. But poke around the leaf litter for a few minutes, and the mountain’s history of bloodshed quickly reveals itself.
“It’s impossible to go up here and go around with a metal detector and not find bullets, a lot of bullets, just 5, 10 minutes and it’s bullets, bullets, bullets,” said Chuck Keeney, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
On a muggy September afternoon, Keeney climbed over a metal gate blocking a fire access road halfway up Blair Mountain and walked some 50 feet into the woods. One hundred years ago, the spot where he stood had been the southern point of the Battle of Blair Mountain, a pivotal labor fight between miners and coal company loyalists. It’s a largely forgotten history that Keeney has been working to revive and disseminate through the preservation of the mountain itself.
Standing there, on land still owned by coal companies, Keeney asserted that if people just listened, the land would tell powerful stories — stories that would complicate the narratives around labor, coal, and identity in West Virginia.
In early 20th-century Appalachia, miners in the southern West Virginia coal fields lived in company towns. They were dependent on their bosses for every necessity, including their homes and food. Pay was low. Living and working conditions were deplorable.
The United Mine Workers union attempted to organize miners in the region, but the coal companies fought back, often violently. In a series of clashes now called the Mine Wars, both union and company supporters were killed.
By 1921, tensions were coming to a head. Miners in Mingo County, south of Blair, had joined the union. In retaliation, the company had evicted them from their homes. The miners had been rounded up and were being kept in pens. State police had cut off food supplies, so families were starving.
Then private detectives who worked for the coal companies brazenly murdered a union sympathizer named Sid Hatfield, a hero to the miners. It was broad daylight, and Hatfield’s wife was by his side. Tensions boiled over.
One week after the murder, Frank Keeney, the leader of West Virginia’s United Mine Workers chapter — and Chuck Keeney’s great-grandfather — gave a series of speeches to rally miners in the coal fields.
“He was the guy that told them at the rally the only way you can get your rights is with the high-powered rifle, then told them to go home and await the call to march, and he’s the one who sent out the call to march,” Chuck Keeney said.
The plan was to march more than 50 miles from Charleston, West Virginia, to Mingo County in support of the evicted miners. Blair Mountain, in a county controlled by Don Chafin, a notoriously anti-union sheriff, stood in the way.
The sheriff recruited some 3,000 law enforcement officers, coal company guards and civilians. They entrenched up high on Blair Mountain, with machine guns. The miners — 10,000 to 15,000 of them, armed with rifles or whatever weapons they could find — approached from below. The sheriff’s army rained down bullets on the miners. Some people claim 1 million rounds were spent during the battle, which lasted from Aug. 30 to Sept. 4, 1921.
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