The Battle To Preserve Blair Mountain

Last year, weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz visited Blair Mountain in West Virginia. In 1921, Blair Mountain was the site of a ten-day battle between coal company supporters and miners trying to unionize the coal fields of southern West Virginia. It is considered the largest armed insurrection in this country since the Civil War. Since then, the battle has been over the preservation of the mountain. Raz checks in with West Virginia native Doug Estepp to find out what has happened at the site over the last year.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Earlier this year, we visited Blair Mountain in West Virginia. That's where, almost 90 years ago, thousands of coal miners rose up against the powerful coal companies to demand the right to unionize. Next to the Civil War, it was the largest insurrection in U.S. history, and the battle that took place there left hundreds of people dead.

Today, there is a second battle happening on the mountain. It's between those who want to preserve it and those who want to mine it for coal. Kenny King is a third-generation coal miner, but he's also a preservationist, and he showed us around back in March.

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KENNY KING: They've already approved that area over there, 333 acres for mountaintop removal.

RAZ: Where we are standing right now, you fear that this will not exist if this is no longer designated as a national historic site.

KING: No. It'll be just a flat, grassy field.

RAZ: Another person we met in West Virginia was Doug Estepp. He's a local historian involved in the preservation process. And we called him up this past week for an update. Doug, what's been happening with the battle for Blair Mountain since we last spoke?

DOUG ESTEPP: Well, right now, we're waiting for a decision. There was a meeting about a month ago about an extension for a active mine very near the Blair Mountain site. And a decision hasn't been made yet. But if that permit is granted, they'll basically expand onto the battlefield. It'll essentially cut the battlefield in two.

RAZ: So it sounds like not a whole lot has changed in terms of where the process is right now, right?

ESTEPP: Right.

RAZ: It's still in limbo.

ESTEPP: We're waiting to see what happens in court as far a national historic designation, and we're also waiting to see what happens with the mine permit expansion.

RAZ: I know you've been involved in some demonstrations and protests to preserve Blair Mountain. Are state legislators listening to you guys?

ESTEPP: We don't really get much from the state. They haven't shown any support for saving the mountain, so it's basically us against the coal companies at this point.

RAZ: I know that you had mentioned at the time that you were planning on starting historical tours of West Virginia and Blair Mountain. How's it going?

ESTEPP: It went really well. We had two tours this year and we're planning six more next year. Basically, we trace the early history of the West Virginia coal industry, and we focus on what's known at the mine wars, things like the Battle of Matewan from 1920. It was the deadliest gunfight in U.S. history. The Battle of Blair Mountain itself was the largest insurrection in U.S. history outside the Civil War.

You had 15,000 men fighting on a mountain for four or five days with machine guns, airplanes, light artillery, but probably not one in 1,000 people have ever heard of it. And we're going to be checking out some of the other parts of the battlefield. So I'll be back down there in the spring checking out those areas as well.

RAZ: That's Doug Estepp. He's a West Virginia native and a local historian who's working to help preserve Blair Mountain in West Virginia. Doug, great talking to you. Thanks for the update, and happy holidays.

ESTEPP: Thank you. Same to you.

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