Preservation Clash Has Echoes of Coal Dispute In 1921, 7,000 miners fought a pitched battle to unionize West Virginia coal fields. The dispute at Blair Mountain remains one of the largest armed uprisings in U.S. history. Now the fight is over preserving the area or mining it.
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Preservation Clash Has Echoes of Coal Dispute

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Preservation Clash Has Echoes of Coal Dispute

Preservation Clash Has Echoes of Coal Dispute

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Wednesdays, we talk about the workplace. Today, mine workers and plans to preserve a mountain.

It was one of the biggest armed uprisings in American labor history. In 1921, thousands of miners fought a pitched battle at Blair Mountain to unionize the coal fields of southern West Virginia. Now people are fighting over Blair Mountain again. This time the battle is between those who want to mine the mountain and those who want to preserve it. And the preservation plan has left the miners' union in an awkward position. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

They started out to avenge the killing of Sid Hatfield, the pro-union police chief memorialized in John Sayles' movies, "Matewan." Armed with pistols, Winchester rifles, even a Gatling gun, the union miners marched south to help their non-union brothers. When they reached Blair Mountain, they spent five days fighting a force which included sheriff's deputies in the pay of coal companies. When the president called in troops, the miners laid down their arms. The death toll ranged from the teens to more than 50. The miner's leader was named Bill Blizzard.

(Soundbite of hammering)

LANGFITT: Today, Blizzard's son, William C., lives in a trailer by the Kanawha River.

Unidentified Man: How you doing?

LANGFITT: He recently published a book about the state's mining history.

Mr. WILLIAM C. BLIZZARD (Bill Blizzard's Son): The approximate, as you might say, cause of the march was to help the coal miners on strike in Mingo County. They were on their way to Mingo. Part of the marchers' saying as they were marching was: On to Mingo, on to Mingo. Also they were going to hang Chapin to a sour apple tree. I...

LANGFITT: He's referring to Don Chapin, Logan County's sheriff back then. When miners tried to organize, coal operators had them beaten and evicted from their homes. At Blair Mountain, Chapin ordered biplanes to hit the miners with pipe bombs and tear gas.

Mr. KENNY KING (Grandson of Blair Mountain Fighter): This ...(unintelligible) because from here, they could look up the holler here and see anybody coming out.

LANGFITT: Kenny King's grandfather fought on Blair Mountain. Now King is trying to get 1,400 acres along the ridge line on the National Register of Historic Places. He has lots of help. The Sierra Club, which opposes surface mining, is backing the preservation plan. King has collected hundreds of shell casings, as well as weapons and other artifacts, to make his case. Today, he's back up on the mountain. He turns on his metal detector.

(Soundbite of metal detector being turned on)

LANGFITT: King explains why West Virginia needs to save this mountain.

Mr. KING: Well, it's just part of, you know, our heritage, our history. And if it's an example of what happens when people get pushed so far, you know, they have to do something. They were just being pushed and pushed and pushed, and finally, they just had had enough of it.

LANGFITT: King comes across a ditch. He says this is where miners might have taken cover from a machine-gun nest on top of the ridge.

Mr. KING: This depression right here looks like a trench. It's long, narrow. Of course, it would have been a lot deeper at the time. You know, that was 80--What?--84 years ago.

LANGFITT: But where Kenny King sees history, others see money and jobs. Greg Wooten is vice president of a property company. His firm has leased land around Blair Mountain to Massey Energy. It contains more than 12 million tons of coal. Wooten points out the parcel on a map in his office.

(Soundbite of paper rustling)

Mr. GREG WOOTEN (Vice President, Property Company): Now, conservatively, given today's market, that would represent about a half a billion dollars worth of reserve value. And that was a billion with a B. It would affect nearly a hundred jobs, and we believe that those types of issues are just as important as trying to preserve the history of Blair Mountain.

LANGFITT: Wooten says the Blair Mountain of 1921 no longer exists. Today, it is crisscrossed with roads and dotted with illegal dumps. Standing in a clearing on the mountaintop, he points to a pile of trash.

Mr. WOOTEN: One avenue would be preserving Blair Mountain in its present condition. But is this really what people expect when they talk about preserving Blair Mountain? A pile of rubbish right there that was burned. It's, you know--it's weed patches for most of what we are seeing here until you get to the trees, and then the brush is so thick that you can't see the next ridge line.

LANGFITT: If the federal government designates all 1,400 acres around Blair Mountain, Wooten says companies won't be able to mine the area profitably. But with coal at its highest price in decades, some in Logan County don't buy that.

Mr. CHARLES BELLA (Retired Miner): It's just a lot of greed. A lot of nothing but greed.

LANGFITT: That's Charles Bella. He's a retired miner. He's sitting on his porch with his dog, Monroe. Bella says that over the last decade, coal companies have knocked the tops off so many mountains that they are redefining the landscape.

(Soundbite of a dog barking)

Mr. BELLA: Well, here in southern West Virginia, I'll tell you, our mountains are scarred up so bad with this mountain-top mining and--I don't think that it would do any harm to leave one mountain ridge to, you know, have in memory of our United Mine Workers miners that fought for our union.

LANGFITT: But some young miners see it differently. They worry that preserving a large swath of the mountain could cost them work. Tony Toth(ph) works for Massey. He sees mining the area around Blair Mountain as an opportunity.

Mr. TONY TOTH (Massey Employee): If it opens they offer me a day-shift job. I'm 30 years old and I've never had a day-shift job and I've worked my whole life. And that's what I want so I can have a family and, you know, be a father figure at home. And when you work night shifts, you know, you don't have that time.

LANGFITT: The men who fought for Blair Mountain were members of the United Mine Workers of America. But today, the union is not supporting the preservation plan. Kenny King says the union is angling for mining jobs on the mountain. Union head, Cecil Roberts, says that's ridiculous. He says his organization has supported preserving some portion of Blair Mountain for years.

Mr. CECIL ROBERTS (Head, United Mine Workers of America): We never actually got into how large it should be or how small it should be. We just wanted to preserve the history of this battle. We're now into a situation where folks are saying, `Well, if you don't want to designate X-amount of miles, then you're not for this.' And that's just really unfair.

LANGFITT: A state commission backs 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.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: For a video history of the dispute, go to npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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