More than 85 years after the miners’ ill-fated march, another battle for Blair Mountain is being waged in the courts. Over the years, the miners’ battlefield disappeared piece by piece as coal companies mined the mountain. The mining received little attention until 1990, when the headline “Massey Wants to Strip Mine Blair Mountain” landed on the front page of the Charleston (W.Va.) Sunday Gazette-Mail. Aracoma Coal, a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.–based A.T. Massey Coal, had proposed a massive surface mining project using nonunion labor.
The United Mine Workers (UMW), preservationists and environmentalists opposed the project and, after extensive wrangling in the courts over mining permits, Aracoma backed away from its full-scale plans. Meanwhile, Dal-Tex, another coal company with mining operations on the battlefield, reached an agreement with the UMW to donate money and land on the mountain for a small park commemorating the miners’ march. The park never materialized, and Dal-Tex continued mining—with union labor.
In 1999 St. Louis–based Arch Coal applied for a permit to mine Blair Mountain using the controversial mountaintop-removal process. The permits again bogged down in the courts, and labor, environmental and preservation activists reenacted the 1921 march from Marmet to Blair Mountain.
The conflict has spilled over into the community, pitting local residents who support the development of high-paying coal jobs against those who feel that preserving the historic site is a more important and lasting symbol than a few years of wages.
Although mining has significantly altered much of the battlefield, some of Don Chafin’s earthwork and rock trenches remain intact atop Spruce Fork Ridge. In May 2005, the West Virginia Archives and History Commission nominated 1,600 acres of the mountain for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, which listed Blair Mountain as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places in 2006. Opponents of the nomination include descendants of the original marchers; one vocal supporter was William C. Blizzard, son of Bill Blizzard, who attended his father’s treason trial in 1922.
Local landowners have filed suit against the commission, and the case was still pending at press time. The National Park Service and the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office are reviewing the nomination.
The symbolic importance attached to Blair Mountain possibly has become more significant than the historical event that occurred there. The battle was an unmitigated failure for the miners and the United Mine Workers; however, for preservation and environmental activists, Blair Mountain is an emblem of the underdog who stands up to powerful corporate interests.
Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.