A West Virginia mountain embodies the long history of the coal industry’s grip

Blair Mountain, site of a deadly 1921 battle between miners and their employers, is mostly inaccessible to those who would honor its significance. 

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After the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, union miners surrendered their weapons. (Wikimedia Commons)

After the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, union miners surrendered their weapons. (Wikimedia Commons)

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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.

The battle

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.

Two coal miners sit in a sniper’s nest with a machine gun during the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)

One hundred years later, Keeney braved some poison ivy to climb up on a precipitous bank. It was clear from where he was standing why this section of mountain served as a good entrenchment for Chafin’s army. From up top, there are clear sightlines and, presumably, clear gunshot lines, too.

“It’s hard to walk up the hill, much less if you had machine guns bearing down on you,” Keeney said. “The place itself is so important, because you really can’t understand the magnitude of what was happening until you’re up here and you stare down the slope. And you think, ‘What would motivate individuals to charge up this hill against machine guns?’ You have to ask yourself, ‘What would it take to get you to do something like that?’ And you begin to see the magnitude of the conflict and the intensity of it.”

The Battle of Blair Mountain stands among major insurrections in post-Civil War U.S. history. There isn’t a clear record of how many people died in the battle — officially, it’s at least 16, though some put it closer to 100 people. The federal government had to send in troops to end the conflict. It’s a pivotal yet largely forgotten event in this country’s labor movement. And the only thing that marks it is a small silver plaque at the foot of the mountain.

Federal troops were sent to West Virginia to stop the fighting in Blair Mountain in 1921. (Wikimedia Commons)

“It was kind of weird growing up, knowing that there was a war fought here and nobody knew about it, and there’s no monuments to it,” Keeney said. “And it’s just whispers. And as I grew older, and I began to slowly comprehend the magnitude of the history and the significance of it, I was like, we don’t need to whisper this history. We need to shout it from the mountaintops.”

After the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 union miners surrendered their bullets and weapons. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Complicated memory

Memorializing tragedy is complicated. One way we do it is by building museums and filling them with artifacts. But events happen in places, and places are part of the story.

“I think maybe one way to think about it is an anchor, that the place itself, the land anchors memory,” said Ken Foote, geographer at the University of Connecticut.

Foote started thinking about the role of place in memorializing historic events in the 1980s, on a visit to Salem, Massachusetts. By then, the town was already commercializing the history of the Salem witch trials into a kitschy tourist industry, but there was no real, substantive memorial to that same history. No real reckoning with it.

“That sense of shame that was attached to the killing of their neighbors hung over the town for a long time, and there was no sense that the site itself should be preserved or commemorated whatsoever,” Foote said.

He became curious about other sites of historical tragedy in the United States. What happened to them? He started investigating. And he found that sometimes, usually when a community felt a great sense of loss, or perhaps some positive meaning after an event, like community heroism, there was, indeed, commemoration. Think 9/11, though that was rare. At most sites of violence and tragedy, nothing happened; the places were put back to use, with little sense of a lesson or meaning to them. Sometimes, a plaque or other form of recognition marked the site, without a full memorial. In other instances, when the event was particularly shameful, there was a deliberate effort to forget what happened at a site.

But here’s the thing: Human lives and memory get embedded in landscape, like fossils, and usually it’s only a matter of time before they’re uncovered, interpreted, contested.

“The ways in which we shape landscapes or the ways in which landscapes shape us, that’s all tied to memory and in terms of how we engage in that landscape,” said Allison James, who is a lecturer at the University of Virginia School of Architecture and works in cultural landscape preservation. “So when we’re engaged in a particular landscape, especially a historical landscape, that helps us to understand the present.”

The people shape the land. The land shapes the people. The past shapes the present.

What does Blair Mountain have to do with any of that?

Mining has leveled some 500 mountains across Appalachia, changing local topography, hydrology, animal habitat, and environment. In turn, the land here, and coal, have molded the people, their economy, culture and character. Their very identity.

The history locked in Blair Mountain’s very soil could challenge some of the narratives around that identity. Right now, however, the closest place that grapples with that history is an hour away, at a small museum in the tiny town of Matewan, West Virginia.

Changing the narrative

The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum tells the stories of those conflicts. Displays feature a miner’s meal bucket, Frank Keeney’s pocket watch, a replica of the tents where mining families stayed when evicted from their homes. One display holds coins produced by each mining company that functioned as currency, though they could be used only in each company’s stores.

Terry Steele pointed to one coin that read, “Good for one loaf bread.”

Company currency on display at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. (Irina Zhorov/For WHYY)

“So it’s really controlling you,” said Steele, a West Virginia native, a union man who worked in the mines for 26 years. He helped found this museum, and the displays feature some of his family’s artifacts.

During a visit, Steele wove through the small museum to the Blair Mountain section, pointing out a replica of one of the guns used during the battle, bullets that have been dug up at the site, a harmonica, belt buckles, and a newspaper clipping detailing the fight. The museum successfully lays out a history visitors may not be familiar with, but it’s far from Blair Mountain, the site of the big battle. For Steele, that distance is the difference between understanding the conflict and truly connecting with it.

Bullets from the Battle of Blair Mountain on display at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. (Irina Zhorov/For WHYY)

“I don’t claim to know anything about the physical structure or where the battles took place on Blair, but I do know that what took place there is what’s important to me,” Steele said. “That’s where my people — I’m talking about union people — stood up against injustice, and that’s where they ran into injustice, and some of them died there, because of what they believed. Now, that didn’t happen here in this museum. No one has died in this museum. But when you’re in actual places where this takes place, there’s a deeper connection I think with the soul.”

Steele, despite being from the area, despite the importance he places on Blair Mountain, despite this very personal history, has never been on the mountain. That’s because it’s pretty much all private land. It belongs to coal companies or their affiliates.

For a long time, that meant not only that the land couldn’t be visited, but also that it could actually be mined.

Wanting to avoid that fate, in 2005 a coalition of various groups petitioned for Blair Mountain’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2009, the coalition succeeded. But almost immediately, coal companies appealed the decision and won.

Soon after, the companies started applying for permits to mine Blair Mountain. They wanted to do mountaintop removal, a method that would have involved dynamiting vast chunks of the mountain to get to the coal seams. It would quite literally destroy Blair Mountain — and the physical connection to its history.

“Those in power decide what gets preserved, and what stories are told about it, the ways in which the narrative is shaped,” said Allison James from the University of Virginia School of Architecture. “And those who don’t have the power and resources are left out of the narrative. And often their sites are destroyed.”

“There are also political interests in presenting the preservation of one place or another,” James said. “Whose story are we telling? What effect might that have on the sense of power that that might bring to the labor movement? Stories are powerful. So in that way, a narrative is very, very much tied to landscape. And control over narrative is very much tied to landscape.”

There’s a narrative in West Virginia that coal has been a kind of godsend for the state. That it has provided work, money, pride. That it’s brought nothing but good here, and that its recession is something to mourn. But people like Keeney and Steele want to complicate that narrative. To remind fellow West Virginians that coal also brought pain, that its extraction scarred both people and land.

Telling the story of Blair Mountain also tells a story of bravery, of people who were willing to fight back, that flies in the face of another pernicious narrative: of Appalachian fatalism, the persistent stereotype that people here are irreconcilably backward, lazy, and passive in the face of poverty.

“So a big thing is casting ourselves in a more accurate light that will change people’s view of themselves, but also casting the region in a different light for the rest of the country,” Keeney said. “Having grown up here and lived here my whole life, I’m kind of sick of people making jokes about teeth. And whether or not I’m barefoot, or whether or not I’m dating my cousin. And this is a place where we can begin to reclaim our identity.”

The land shapes the people. The past shapes the present.

A coalition of environmental, union and other groups sued to put Blair Mountain back on the National Register of Historic Places.

Keeney said working with environmentalists was risky.

“Being called an environmentalist here is kind of like, you know, being called a communist in the 1950s. As soon as you have that label, nobody’s going to listen to anything you have to say.”

That’s because many miners, whose jobs have already become less secure as the industry first mechanized and then shrunk due to natural gas, saw environmentalists as threatening their livelihoods. Keeney focused on the history to win people over. He started to think of this fight as the second Battle of Blair Mountain. Protecting the land became a matter of principle.

“If they can destroy this place, which is the most sacred spot in the history of working-class people, maybe, in America, if they can destroy that and get away with wiping it off the map, then how can you stop them from anything else?” Keeney said. “How are you going to prevent the fossil fuel industry from heating up the planet? If you can’t stop them here, you can’t stop them anywhere.”

In 2016 a federal judge ruled that Blair had been removed improperly from the National Register and eventually it was put back on the list.

The designation protects the site from surface mining, but not necessarily from other disturbances, like timbering.

And it doesn’t solve the problem of people like Terry Steele not being able to visit the site, because the land is still in the hands of private companies. Keeney said he’s worked with various philanthropic foundations willing to buy the land, but the coal companies are not selling.

That hasn’t stopped him from imagining what the land could be, one day. He envisions a public park where people can come learn about the Battle of Blair Mountain, can see the entrenchments, and visualize the fighting. He thinks that might make people think differently about West Virginians, about labor, about coal.

“I think the best history forces us to ask uncomfortable questions,” Keeney said. “And it forces us to confront uncomfortable truths, which is another reason why it’s imperative to preserve this place. You can’t be here without confronting some uncomfortable truths about the history of America. And so we must preserve it in order to confront those uncomfortable things. You can’t move forward by teaching myths to your children. Right? You move forward as a civilization by debunking myths and confronting the hard truths.”

For now though, he sneaks behind the gate. If he comes alone, he’ll often hear the gunshots from a century ago echoing in his mind.

“But I don’t always hear that,” Keeney said. “In spite of the fact that this was a place of violence, I feel at peace when I’m up here.”

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