Editorials, Opinion

The lost chapter: 100 years since Blair Mountain

Aug. 25, 1921, was the beginning of the end of West Virginia’s lost chapter.

While the memory of company stores and scrip live on, the nearly decade-long rebellion against deplorable working conditions and coal barons’ greed has largely been forgotten.

West Virginia’s coal mine wars started with a yearlong strike in the Paint and Cabin Creek mines in 1912. The wars ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain (Aug. 25-Sept. 2) in 1921.

The story around Blair Mountain, if you’ve heard of it at all, has a mythic quality. Like the legends of old, key details remain the same: The long march began in Marmet, several miles outside Charleston, and went south toward Logan and Mingo counties. Miners, wearing red bandanas around their necks to distinguish friend from foe, had a seven-day standoff on Blair Mountain, which separates Logan and Mingo, against Sheriff Don Chafin and his deputized citizen army, who were later backed up by several thousand state police. (Chafin was famously in the pocket of mine owners and coal operators.) After several skirmishes, amounting in at least 20 fatalities, President Harding sent in federal troops and the miners laid down their arms.

And like the legends of old, some details change from storyteller to storyteller. Some sources say the march to Blair Mountain was a response to the murder of Sheriff Sid Hatfield, a union sympathizer, at the hands of Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency guards (hired by coal operators to quell strikes and keep miners in line). Some say it began with a call-to-arms from Mary “Mother” Jones herself, declaring Mingo and Logan needed unions even if they had to be set up by force. Others cite a desire to free jailed miners in Mingo who had been arrested for violating martial law. Some sources mention (possibly false) reports that Chafin and his men had started shooting women and children. Some cite all or none of the above as the flashpoint for the battle.

How do we get all these conflicting accounts of a historical event? How is it possible so many West Virginians don’t know about Blair Mountain and the mine wars at all?

Chuck Keeney, great-grandson of United Mine Workers District 17 president Frank Keeney, has said participants in the battle left no written accounts and many took oaths of secrecy to protect each other from prosecution; union membership would put a target on miners’ backs for years to come. Mine owners and coal operators, who were closely linked to government officials at all levels in the state, took control of the narrative and much of it has been erased from West Virginians’ awareness; mention of the coal wars was conspicuously absent from school curriculums, even in West Virginia Studies classes.

Today, people look back at the mine wars and the Battle of Blair Mountain as a pivotal moment in the labor rights movement, even though it was a failure in the immediate aftermath as the local UMW went bankrupt and unionizing efforts crumbled. However, the battle and the widely covered trials afterward caught national attention, particularly as the atrocities of coal operators and their guards came to light, and support poured in from pro-union workers across the spectrum of industry. The trials brought the miners’ plight into the national spotlight and, though largely forgotten in West Virginia, would inspire labor activists for decades to come.