Guest post by Wren
See marchonblairmountain.org for information.
The striking miners rode on boxcars, flat cars, on the roofs and in the cow catchers of commandeered trains. They wore red neckerchiefs around their collars and on their arms, and held guns in their laps. Some were laughing, spitting, smoking; others were silent, their eyes fixed on the mountains that unfolded before them. It was August of 1921, and the forests were lush and green.
Along the train tracks sat rows of coal miners’ cabins, and the occasional town street, with several stores and a saloon. Some folks on the sidewalks tipped their hats as the trains passed, while others stood cross-armed, scoffing. The hats that were tipped were mostly worn down and cheaply made, while the crossed arms were clothed in the tailored jackets of professionals and businessmen.
“Ya ready?” said a thick-necked older miner to the younger, slimmer man next to him. Let’s call the older one Buddy. Actually, let’s call them both Buddy, the name the miners used for one another during the duration of the mine war centered on Blair.
“Yup,” said the younger Buddy, “Got my gun polished up and everythin’. Time to get those Baldwin-Felts men.”
Both men had worked underground since they were teens, hauling precious bituminous coal from mines tunneled deep in to the mountains. The work was dangerous and important– this coal played a crucial role in allowing American industry to grow and expand. Still, miners were poorly paid, had their lives controlled by the coal industry and were subject to the whims of company guards and private detectives. But that’s all over and done with, thought both Buddies, we’re not gonna stand to be treated as less than men anymore.
As the train entered Logan County, it began to pass empty streets and rows of houses with shuttered windows. Smoke, escaping from several chimneys, was the only evidence of human inhabitance. From the silence, the miners knew that they were getting close, and would soon being pulling in to the train depot at Blair.
These miners had commandeered trains to join fighting already happening on the slopes of Blair Mountain. Carrying guns and supplies, they joined thousands of men exchanging fire with a privately funded, coal company-backed army.
The miners wanted to reconfigure life in the coalfields of Appalachia. In coal camps, they were forced to shop in company stores, send their children to company schools, rent company houses and attend company operated churches. The price of goods was pushed up high, and miners who shopped in other places were sometimes fired. Rent was deducted from pay and law and order enforced by mine guards who enacted the will of the operators, kicking out workers who got involved with the union or questioned the system too loudly. Some “rabblerousers” were even killed as a warning to other miners: do not try to unionize, or else.
By the time August of 1921 came around, miners in southern West Virginia had had enough. For five days, striking miners held the slopes of Blair, surrendering only when the United States army was called in. Upwards of ten thousand men risked their lives for the union, exchanging over a million shots with King Coal and his henchmen. In the end, they returned home by train and foot, and it would take another decade for the United Mine Workers of America union to take root in southern West Virginia.
Although the miners did not win a union on Blair, they succeeded in calling attention to the plight of the American coal miner and illuminating the coal industry’s control over central Appalachia. They also inspired a stronger national labor movement that would go on to win such institutions as collective bargaining, the weekend and the eight hour day.
Today, the Blair Mountain battlefields are threatened by six mountaintop removal and strip mining permits.
If Blair is mountaintop removal mined, it will join over four hundred Appalachian peaks that have been blasted apart to reach the coal seams beneath them. The mining operations will send toxins in to the air that cause rates of asthma and cancer to skyrocket. Rubble and overburden from the site will be pushed in to nearby valleys, termed “valley fills,” where they will mix with headwater streams that go out across the eastern United States. Fish will die in rivers, and the water that comes out of sinks and showers in nearby communities may be orangish or blackish in tone. Even if it looks clear, it will likely contain arsenic, selenium, lead and cadmium.
The felling of any mountain for a few months or weeks worth of coal is an affront to the ecology and people of Appalachia. But Blair carries a unique significance: it is a testament to over one hundred years of resistance to the coal industry, which has placed profit over land, human life and the most ancient mountain range on the planet. To lose Blair is, in some ways, to bury this history of resistance.
On June 5, a march will commence that follows the route the miners took to Blair. It will leave from Marmet, the place where thousands of miners gathered to march southwest in 1921. We will make our way towards Madison, where union officials convinced the marchers to disband. From Madison, we will continue towards Blair, much like the miners did against the wishes of their superiors.
Along the road to Blair Mountain, we will pass by unincorporated towns and hollows lined with homes that weave up in to the mountains. This is a topography of resistance, where history is grafted on to the landscape. Here, a United Mine Workers of America Hall, there, the same train tracks that took fighting miners towards Blair.
Like the miners who marched in 1921, we are living in a critical moment in history. King Coal continues to disregard the lives of miners and, since the mid-20th century, has been tearing the land itself apart. Let us march on Blair Mountain to let the world know that Appalachians and their allies are creating a new narrative of resistance- one that binds environment, labor and community together to fight for a better world.