Saving the mountain and preserving history

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Today is the deadline for comments to be heard concerning Blair Mountain in West Virginia, being set aside as a historical landmark or whether the coal operators will level Blair Mountain.

It’s a fight that has gone on for a long time, even after the initial battle there in 1921. If you are not familiar with Blair Mountain, here is a synopsis.

According to the opening paragraph of the account in Wikipedia, Blair Mountain was the site of one of the “largest labor uprisings in United States history and one of the largest, best-organized, and most well-armed uprisings since the American Civil War.”

Back in 2016, my friend Steve Gilly, the co-host of “Stories: A History of Appalachia”, and I recorded a podcast about Blair Mountain and the history of this significant event.

Since 1921 and even to this day, visitors who have went on Blair Mountain, have found shotgun shells, guns and more artifacts from this pivotal labor skirmish which is downplayed by coal operators, yes, even to this day.  While the mountain has been threatened over the years by many coal operators looking to mine the wealth of the black treasure underneath the ground, some have actually wanted to use Blair Mountain as the opportunity to put the proverbial sword through the heart of the union labor movement as a final “Bronx Cheer” to the battle.

Along the way, there’s been threats, near misses and now, resolution, or so some think, to this continued battle for the mountain that holds the ghosts of the labor movement and its intensity back almost 100 years ago.

Dr. Charles B. Keeney III, a history professor who teaches in Logan County, West Virginia, is a member of Friends of Blair Mountain, and the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, a leading figure in the West Virginia Mine Wars. He is one of many leading the movement to preserve the Blair Mountain Battlefield site.

On March 30, 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration placed the site on the National Register of Historic Places. A total of 1,669 acres was placed in that resolution. Almost immediately, Don Blankenship, then CEO of Massey Energy, (and well-known union buster) threatened publicly to sue each individual member of the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office if they did not “delist the battlefield.”

By the end of 2009, Blair Mountain Battlefield was delisted, due to many coal operators and companies who took all the steps to “erase” this “so-called” historical event from history books and memory.

Seven years later, a U.S. District Judge, Reggie B. Walton, vacated the 2009 decision of the Keeper of the National Register to delist the Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register. Walton ruled in his decision to delist the battlefield was both an “arbitrary and capricious” one and in his opinion, violated Federal Law. Later in July of 2016, the U.S. Department of Interior voluntarily dropped their appeal of Judge Walton’s decision. It should be noted that Walton “vacated the December 30, 2009 delisting of the battlefield and did not vacate the March 30, 2009 listing of the battlefield.”

With incursions by coal companies on the land along with the delisting of Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places, the decision of whether Blair Mountain will remain comes down to a deadline of October 26, 2017.

So, will Blair Mountain live on as a historic landmark/battlefield or will the top be blown off by coal operators, to be be strip mined, raped and purged from history as a mention in history of “the hole of what was a mountain” that hosted a classic battle of lawmen against union “rednecks”?

It hurts.

It hurts deep inside to think that this mountain, although in West Virginia, will be blown to bits, as a final “F.U.” to coal miners and their families who either had ties to the event or family involved in unionizing throughout Appalachia. Keeney’s great-grandfather, Charles Frank Keeney, was “a leading figure in the events surrounding the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain” and Keeney states in his letter to Stephanie Toothman with the U.S. Government that “this history is deeply personal to me as an individual and a scholar,” adding that he has seen “firsthand the level of political corruption prevalent in the coalfields.”

“It is no surprise that deceased people are on the coal companies’ landowner list. Indeed, a study in neighboring Mingo County once revealed that over 2,000 deceased individuals were regularly voting. “In Southern West Virginia, nearly 100 politicians have been either indicted or convicted of voter fraud, corruption, money embezzlement, and other political crimes since the 1990’s. Regarding the Blair Battlefield, several small individual landowners whose property overlap onto the 1,669 acres have confessed to members of FOBM (Friends of Blair Mountain) that executives from Natural Resource Partners and Arch Coal have visited their homes and tried to convince/intimidate them into objecting to the listing of the battlefield.”

Yep. Sounds a lot like Appalachia.

That stigma of politics and who you know, how much money you have, putting the screws to the little man and damn history to hell.

That attitude and way of life is sadly, no different in other parts of the region called Appalachia.

If the Blair Mountain movement does in fact, save the mountain, then others should rally and do the same for projects in their own backyard.

The reason? Preserving history and setting the story straight.

Although there’s never been a battle like Blair Mountain over Dickenson Memorial High School with the current Dickenson County Board of Supervisors over the World War One memorial status of the old school, it is a battle that is currently simmering on the stove between county citizens, the Dickenson County Historical Society and the Board of Supervisors and all in the name of economic progress and historical preservation.

If battles like Blair Mountain are won by coal companies and corporations, history will be re-written, just like the town of Clinchco, Virginia.

Speaking with a few of the ladies with the Dickenson County Historical Society recently, I told them of Clinchco’s prominence in county history and that it was at one time, the headquarters for Clinchfield Coal Company before moving to Dante, VA by the 1950’s. They were surprised to hear that one time, Clinchco was site of a major union/company confrontation during labor organizing efforts.

That incident was passed down in stories from my mother about her father, who was a UMWA member and later in stories relayed to me by my father.  “It was a scary time in the town of Clinchco,” I can remember my mom giving me the background. Only recently did my dad open the historical chest of stories by telling me that the anti-labor movement carried “machine guns” during that very tense time in mountains of Appalachia.

Sadly, our children are not taught the historical importance of events like Clinchco in school and current society downplays the significance of history in favor of “in the now”. Instead, events like Clinchco will be forgotten, in time.

I dare say that the Pittston Strike of the late 80’s and its purpose and outcome will be forgotten in time.

So as I close, it’s time to share one last quote from Dr. Keeney and his letter to Ms. Toothman about Blair Mountain and yes, it can be applied to the DMHS dilemma and other history in Appalachia.

“The point is that where I live, lies, intimidation, and corruption are a part of the status quo, and it appears as though, yet again, coal companies may be getting away with using their high dollar lawyers and underhanded, dishonest tactics to destroy an important part of American, Appalachian, and labor history.”

How will history write Blair Mountain saga or closer to home, the DMHS/Historical Society saga? I hope it will be written with a positive outcome for history and honor, unlike events in Clinchco which have been forgotten or placed in the vaults of people’s minds, to gather dust and deteriorate with age.

One way or another, history in Appalachia must be preserved.

It’s about the only thing we have left going for us at this point.

2 thoughts on “Saving the mountain and preserving history

  1. As a member of the Historical Society of the Pound, it saddens me to see people and corporations (with big bucks and high-paid lawyers) try to erase our history. I’m all for progress but we need to know where we’ve been in order to more successfully plot the path for the future. Leveling Blair Mountain or demolishing Dickenson County High School in the name of progress would be an atrocity; so much history would be erased. But in the Appalachian region, it usually boils down to who you know and who will scratch your back. Thank you, Roderick, for keeping our history alive; I pray we will have something concrete to show for it such as a beautiful Blair Mountain Natural Reserve and a restored Dickenson County Memorial High School building.

  2. Thanks Roderick, one of the reasons that Doris and I wrote our Book “The Matewan Effect” Bloody Mingo was to bring attention to Matewan and Blair Mountain. This history must be protected for future generations. Oakley Dean Baldwin.

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