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Getting the last word on Blair Mountain

Bullets snapped the air, breaking branches and kicking dirt.

Biplanes droned overhead, and some of the pipe bombs dropped by their pilots actually worked.

It didn’t take long for the miners who had been Over There to revert back.

They were tough, rangy and more than committed.

A sad, second nature, it was: Many of them were combat veterans of World War I.

Their bellies flat against the terra firma, the young-old soldiers crawled through heavily wooded fissures, seeking purchase as it came.

Rounds were chambered and rifles were aimed.

Forget about the Argonne Forest, in 1917.

This was Logan County, in 1921.

Blair Mountain.

And it wasn’t the War to End All Wars – just an endless one.

More on that.

Mourning shrouds and mine guard’s coats

Just eight years before, in a room packed shoulder-to-shoulder a couple of counties over from the Logan, people made a circle for Mother Jones.

She was fiery labor organizer and Irish immigrant who didn’t have anything to lose – because she had already lost everything.

Her husband and four young children were taken by the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1867.

The Great Chicago Fire consumed her dress shop four years later.

Monongah brought her to West Virginia in 1907.

By then, she was organizing on behalf of the United Mine Workers of America. Coal mining wasn’t just hard work. It was dangerous work.

When the mine blew on a cold December morning that year in the northern Marion County town, it took 500 workers with it – and at least 100 of those victims, labor historians say, were teenagers and boys younger than that, even.

All over West Virginia and Kentucky, the coal dust came down like a mourning shroud, with each disaster.

That was the irony for the miners dug in on Blair Mountain 100 years ago this month who had fought in France and Germany.

By the time the 1920s had spooled out, labor analysts and workplace safety watchers had formulated a grim analogy with a geography that literally hit home.

If given a choice, they said, of spending an afternoon on a World War I battlefield, or in a West Virginia coal mine, you would have been statistically safer up top.

Even, they stressed, with the bombs, bullets and mustard gas.

If the job was tough, the living conditions were even worse. Coal camps, with substandard housing, or no housing.

Indentured servitude and “scrip,” the in-house currency of the owner.  

Company stores – and company goons.

If something goes wrong in the mine, owners said, save the mules first.

Miners were expendable. The company had to buy mules.   

Back in that circle, in that meeting room, Mother Jones was burning like a Chicago fire with righteous anger.

She was also just as profane, as she was proud.

Months earlier, company guards had strafed a tent city at a Kanawha County coal camp whose miners had attempted to strike over the conditions.

One was said to have died, shielding his pregnant wife from machine gun bullets.

There were casualties on both sides.

Jones held up a certain article of clothing. It was blood-soaked with a bullet hole.

“This is the first time I ever saw a Goddamned mine guard’s coat decorated to suit me,” she hissed.

Call it the opening act.

Go tell it on the mountain

By 1920, the simmering anger in Matewan, Mingo County, between labor and management of the Stone Mountain Coal Co., blew like a spark in a methane-choked mine shaft.

Sid Hatfield, the county sheriff sympathetic to the miners, tried to stop the company-hired detectives from the Baldwin-Felts agency from evicting miners from company houses for joining the mine workers’ union.

Town Mayor Cabell Testerman joined with the sheriff. Arguments turned into gun fire. Seven Baldwin-Felts detectives were killed, along with mayor and two other miners.

Retribution ruled. On Aug. 1, 1921, other detectives from agency gunned down Hatfield in McDowell County.

A miners’ militia was formed with a mission to march to Mingo to again take on Stone Mountain. They got as far as Logan County, and Blair Mountain, a 2,000-foot peak that was right smack in front of them.

“No armed mob will cross the Logan County line,” decreed Don Chafin, the county’s anti-union sheriff.

Chafin assembled a 3,000-strong opposing force, dug trenches and put up machine gun nests on the mountain.

By Aug. 28, the pro-union militia numbered 10,000, all with red handkerchiefs around their necks so people knew who was who – the “Red Neck Army.”

Twenty to 100 made have died in the ensuing skirmishes. No one knows for sure. President Warren G. Harding summoned 2,100 U.S. Army troops and a squadron of U.S. Army Service planes – joining the ones hired earlier by Chafin with the homemade ordnance.

By Sept. 4, it was over.

Last word

Pro-union as they were, the miners of Mother Jones and Sid Hatfield were emotionally outflanked, J. Davitt McAteer said.

Many of the union miners who did fight in World War I couldn’t stomach firing on active-duty soldiers.

McAteer, the former assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the U.S. Department of Labor, is a Fairmont native whose father came from Ireland to work in the mines.

Like Mother Jones before him, his professional work was informed by a mine disaster.

McAteer was a WVU law student in 1968, when Farmington No. 9 blew, entombing 78 miners.

His whitepaper on that disaster, and all the negligence in the industry that led up to it, was the catalyst to the nation’s first comprehensive mine a safety act a year later.

It also got him a job with consumer activist Ralph Nader.

Now retired, McAteer keeps up the industry, on the downturn as it is, in changing economies.

He especially follows the fortunes of miners, many of them relatively young, who are suffering from a resurgence of black lung, which is causing their literal last breaths.

Blair Mountain wasn’t last-gasp, he said.

Not in mining, where victories often have to be dug out like a pre-longwall coal seam.

Those miners on that mountain, in those August and September days a century ago, McAteer said, won what every force wants to win in any war: Hearts and minds.

“They changed the narrative,” he said.

“The ground shifted. Before that, anything the coal operator did was OK, because the coal operator was the coal operator. But the Blair Mountain miners said it wasn’t OK, and they fought back.”

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