THE NEW BATTLE OVER BLAIR MOUNTAIN - Historical Designation Short Lived, Over 100 Miners Died In 1921, Government Ordered Bombs, Gas Dropped

(09/02/2010)

Over 100 die, thousands arrested during Blair Mountain
battle, government dropped bombs and gas on coal miners

By Bob Weaver

The battle continues to designate the famous site on the National Registery.

West Virginia's Blair Mountain is site of the historic 1921 coal-mining labor battle, and was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Well, not really.

Shortly after the announcement was made, the Division of Culture and History has asked the National Park Service official who oversees the register to remove the Logan County site from the list.

Culture and History spokeswoman Jacqueline Proctor, says the removal request came after a coal company lawyer questioned the counting of area landowners' objections.

Apparently federal rules bar listing an area on the historic register if a majority of area property owners oppose it.

There are 50 property owners in the Blair Mountain district.

Proctor says the state originally counted 22 objections, but a review found there were 30, several of them coal interests. Most of the objections were on form letters.

West Virginia coal outfits have long been opposed to declaring Blair Mountain an historic site.

The Keeper of the National Register says the site includes a 10-mile stretch of Logan County ridges where thousands of miners fought federal troops as part of a United Mine Workers organizing fight.

It covers about 1,600 acres, along a fairly narrow strip that runs northwest from near the town of Blair.

Historians and environmental activists have long sought the designation, increasing their efforts more recently with the encroachment of mountaintop removal coal mining.

The historical designation would not have blocked mining in the area.

WEST VIRGINIA'S FORGOTTEN CIVIL WAR

The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest organized armed uprising in American labor history.

It led almost directly to the labor laws currently in effect in the United States.

For one week in 1921, between 10,000 and 15,000 coal miners confronted company-paid, private detectives in an effort to unionize state coal mining counties.

Though tensions had been simmering for years, the immediate catalyst for the uprising was the unpunished murder of Sid Hatfield on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse that year.

Hatfield, the police chief of Matewan, was murdered by agents of the Baldwin-Felts private detective agency.

He had been a long-time supporter of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and their efforts to unionize the mines.

At a rally, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones called on the miners not to march into Logan and Mingo counties and set up the union by force.

Jones rightly feared a bloodbath in a battle between lightly-armed union forces and the more heavily-armed deputies from Logan County.

Armed men began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain near Marmet in Kanawha County on August 20, where four days later up to 13,000 had gathered and began marching toward Logan County.

They commandeered a Chesapeake and Ohio freight train, renamed by the miners as the 'Blue Steel Special', to meet up with the advanced column of marchers in Boone County.

The reviled and anti-union Sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin {1887-1954}, had begun to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. Chafin was supported financially by the Logan County Coal Operators Association creating the nation's largest private armed force of nearly 2000.

President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers.

After spending days to assemble his private army, Chafin was not going to be denied his battle to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines.

Sheriff Chafin's men deliberately shoot union sympathizers in the town of Sharples, near Blair Mountain.

Miners, hearing about the incident, sped to the Blair Mountain area, some traveling in commandeered trains.

Sheriff Chafin, with the approval of West Virginia's governor, drops bombs from airplanes on the miners. On orders from the famous General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were also used to drop bombs, a rare example of air power being used by the federal government against US citizens.

A combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from the fighting in World War I were dropped in several locations near the towns of Jeffery, Sharples and Blair.

At least one bomb not exploded was recovered by the miners. It was used months later during treason and murder trials following the battle.

Following the battle, 985 miners were indicted for "murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder, and treason against the State of West Virginia".

Up to 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and 50-100 on the union miners side, with many hundreds more injured.

By September, the WV governor had ordered federal troops into the battle.

Realizing he would lose a lot of good miners if the battle continued, union leader Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home.

Many of the miners were imprisoned for a number of years, though they were paroled in 1925.

It would be Bill Blizzard's trial where the unexploded bomb was used as evidence of the government and companies' brutality, resulting in his acquittal.

It seemed to be an overwhelming victory for the coal forces, and UMWA membership plummeted from more than 50,000 miners to approximately 10,000.


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