Preservation Clash Has Echoes of Coal Dispute

Greg Wooton is vice-president of a property company that has leased land around Blair Mountain.

Greg Wooton is vice president of a property company that has leased land around Blair Mountain to Massey Energy. It contains more than 12 million tons of coal. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR

A Community Divided

Plans for Blair Mountain have left the local mining community torn over preserving the past and working the mines.

Retired miner Charles Bella

Retired miner Charles Bella says the coal companies are changing the landscape of southern West Virginia. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR

In 1921, thousands of miners fought a pitched battle to unionize the coal fields of southern West Virginia. The dispute, whose epicenter was at the Blair Mountain mines, remains one of the largest domestic armed uprisings in U.S. history.

Now people are fighting over Blair Mountain again. But this time, the battle pits those who want to preserve the mountain against those who want to mine it. And the preservation plan has left the miners' union in an awkward position.

Historic Blair Mountain

Along with Matewan, Blair Mountain was pivotal in the coal-mining struggles of 1920-1921.

Federal troops were called in to put down the armed groups of union organizers in 1921.

Federal troops were called in to put down the armed groups of union organizers in 1921. Room 135 hide caption

itoggle caption Room 135

The men who originally fought at Blair Mountain were members of the United Mine Workers of America, seeking to protect their right to organize. But today, the union is not supporting the preservation plan. Critics say that instead, the union is angling for mining jobs on the mountain.

Union head Cecil Roberts says his organization has supported preserving some portion of Blair Mountain for years. But he says the size and location of the preserved area have never been clarified.

While proponents of renewed mining maintain that not enough exists of the Blair Mountain of 1921 to preserve, preservationists are urging the federal government to designate 1,400 acres around Blair Mountain as a protected zone.

After reviewing the case, a state commission has backed the preservation of Blair Mountain. West Virginia has until August to decide whether to send the request to the National Park Service for final approval.

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