Image by Matt Orfalea

URGENT: Fossil fuel companies are trying to destroy American labor history (literally) by removing Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places so they can blast mine it out of existence.

The Keeper of the National Register will be issuing a final decision on the Blair Mountain Battlefield after this October. The Keeper has allowed for public comments to be sent to the following address by Oct 26 if you wish to see Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places:

blair_mt_comments@nps.gov


The Battle of Blair Mountain: Violent American history you didn’t learn in school

This is the story of The Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed uprising in the Unites States since the Civil War.

On August 25 1921, over ten thousand coal miners put down their bibles and picked up their guns to fight back against oppressive coal companies, private security thugs, corru pt police forces, and even the federal government.

But before we get to Blair Mountain, you need to hear what led up to it first: a badass law man, an historic assassination, and decades of brutal injustice in the coal company towns of West Virginia.

Danger in the Air

Life for the early 20th century American industrial worker was not only difficult, but often deadly. Nowhere was this more true than in Southern West Virginia, where any safety regulation was strongly resisted by the coal companies. The coal mine owners were happy to trade worker lives in favor of higher profits.

Miners faced treacherous working conditions. Daily concerns included threats of being crushed to death by collapsing tunnels or choking to death from lack of oxygen. At times the air was so methane heavy, when sparked it triggered explosions, killing hundreds of miners at a time. Danger was literally in the air.

Life outside the mines was no brighter. The coal company controlled everything. The miners had to live in company controlled housing. They were paid in the company currency (“scrip”) which could only be used at the company store. Wages would be dropped and rent raised with no notice, locking workers into permanent debt to the coal company.

Company men would go so far as to go through all the town mail removing any material critical of the coal company. The coal company also had their hands in politics, the school system, and even the local churches, controlling virtually every aspect of a coal miner’s life. Black miners, who were former slaves, said working for the coal company felt no different from slavery.

The Union Movement

Around the country, miners and other industrial workers were learning the only way to change things was to fight back. To exercise their strength in numbers. To organize unions, not only for better pay and working conditions, but for basic freedoms of speech and assembly.

Unions made gains across the country. But in southern West Virginia coal mine owners resisted the unions by bribing the police, who would regularly establish marshal law to break strikes. Southern West Virginia was more or less an industrial police state. In oder to prevent union organizing, men would be arrested on “bunching” charges — the crime of simply talking in groups of 3 or more.

To ensure the crackdown on unions was successful, the coal operators hired the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency, private security, to kill the union movement.

The Baldwin Felts’ “The Death Special”

Baldwin-Felts Agents & “The Death Special”

Baldwin Felts Agents spied on the miners, hired informants, and set up machine guns by the mine. Miners were effectively working at gun point. Beatings were common and if you were suspected of trying to organize a union, all your belongings would be thrown into the streets as they kicked you out of your home.

Because of the mass evictions, miners and their families would live in tents in the woods. Even then Baldwin Felts thugs would continue to terrorize them. At night they’d drive an armored car called “The Death Special” firing machine guns into the tents of the evicted miner’s families.

After decades of violence, political corruption, and chronic economic insecurity, things took a turn when the chief of police in the town of Matewan made the rare decision to side with the workers rather than the coal companies. His name was Sid Hatfield.

It was clear the only thing that was going to change anything was something more extreme.

Sid Hatfield & “The Matewan Massacre”

Sid Hatfield was different from most southern West Virginia law men. Rather than accept bribes from the coal company, he rejected them.

He had worked in the coal mines himself and sympathized with the miners, and he had a strong dislike for Baldwin-Felts agents.

In May 1920, a group of Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived in the town Matewan to evict striking miners. Sid challenged there authority. The agents said unless Sid could prove their warrants weren’t legal they were going to go about their business. They went on to evict 6 families from their homes that day.

Later, on their way to the train depot, the agents were approached by Sid Hatfield and the town mayor. Shots were fired. We don’t know who shot first. But when the smoke cleared. Matewan’s mayor, 2 townspeople, and 7 Baldwin Felts agents lay dead. The other agents had fled. For once, the Baldwin-Felts had been defeated.

There had been shooting from the 2nd story of some of the buildings which give credibility to the speculation that it was not entirely spontaneous but a planned ambush by the miners. The gunfight became known as the “Matewan Massacre” and Sid Hatfield became a hero to the union movement. But the Coal Company’s Baldwin-Felts Agents would have their revenge.

Sid Hatfield (bottom center left) poses with Mother Jones (bottom center right) for union publicity photos

The Assassination

In August 1921, as Sid Hatfield walked up the steps of the McDowell County courthouse, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents shot and murdered him in broad daylight. Sid’s murder made it crystal clear anybody who cared about the union was considered expendable by the coal companies.

The national press echoed the coal company’s point of view. The New York Times referred to Hatfield and all like him as “Primitive Mountaineer”, and wrote that his murder needn’t prompt any outrage.

But for the miners, not surprisingly, it did.

The Miner’s Uprising

After Sid Hatfield’s funeral, Frank Keeney (President of the local UMWA Union), Mother Jones, and other union leaders, held a rally of 5,000 coal miner at the state capital in Charleston, West Virginia. The governor refused to even come out of his office.

It was clear the only thing that was going to change anything was something more extreme. Something had to happen. If the state would not protect miners and their families, they would protect themselves.

Keeney told the crowds, “You have no recourse except to fight. The only way to get your rights is with a high powered rifle…Every drop of blood and every dollar of the union will be spent in the attempt to lift martial law…If we meet any resistance, the Matewan affair will look like a sun bonnet parade.”

Miners with rifles by the thousands poured in to town on passenger train. The plan was to march south through Logan County to “Bloody” Mingo County (the most ruthless county towards unions) to free all the union men who had been imprisoned under marshal law, and organize the region.

Standing in the way was the corrupt Logan County sheriff, Don Chafin and a 2,000 ft. natural impediment, Blair Mountain.

The Battle of Blair Mountain

Sherif Don Chafin had long been bribed by the coal companies, and vowed, “No armed mob will cross Logan County”. He hastily assembled 3,000-man army of mine guards, deputies, and volunteers including doctors and lawyers of the coal company. This was by any definition a real class war.

Chafin’s strategy was to cut off the miners before they got to Logan, particularly at Blair Mountain. Don Chafin’s militia prepared for the miner army by occupying the high ground, digging trenches, and placing machine guns. The first skirmishes occurred on the morning of August 25th 1921. The following day President Warren G Harding sent a warning the Union and threatened to intervene with bomber planes if both sides didn’t stand down. The Union leaders agreed to a truce.

But the truce ended less than 25 hrs later after Don Chafin raided a miner camp and killed 2 union men. Historians speculate Chafin did this to provoke a confrontation. That he wanted a battle with the unions. After getting news of the raid, the miners were also ready for war.

Millions of rounds were fired over the course of 5 days. Bombs dropped from the sky. Don Chafin had rented the planes to drop homemade explosives onto the miner army. It is one of the few times in history bombs have been dropped on U.S. soil — and it was the people’s own government.

Things looked so grim, President Warren Harding ordered federal troops to intervene. When the federal troops arrived, the miners, many of whom served their country in WW1, surrendered thinking the government had intervened on their behalf. They were wrong. The government sided with the coal companies.

The Aftermath

Following the battle of Blair Mountain, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia. Although all but one were acquitted of treason charges, others were found guilty of murder and spent years in prison. Only years later in 1933 with the passage of New Deal legislation were the rights of miners to form unions finally recognized.

Erased from History

Given the historical significance of this conflict, one might wonder, “Why haven’t I heard of the Battle of Blair Mountain before?” Because there have been very real efforts to suppress it’s history. For example, Homer Adam Holt, Governor of West Virginia in 1939, worked tirelessly to censor the armed march from West Virginia history books.

More recently, in 2009 the U.S. Dept. of the Interior removed the site of the Blair Mountain labor battle from the National Register of Historic Places. And coal companies have acquired permits to literally blast Blair Mountain out of existence through strip mining. Activists are fighting a 2nd Battle of Blair Mountain today to protect the historic grounds.


***Correction: Article previously reported Blair Mountain was the only time bombs were dropped on US soil. But it’s happened a few times, including when US Police dropped a bomb on Philadelphia black liberation group in 1985

Main Source: “The Mine Wars” (PBS)

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