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Labor landmark's future at stake

Historians want Blair Mountain added to the national register, but property owners call it an effort to block coal mining.

July 29, 2007|Tom Breen | Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Eighty-six years after the largest armed uprising on U.S. soil since the Civil War, Blair Mountain is once again a battlefield.

This time, what's at stake isn't union organizing in West Virginia, but the future use of the site itself.

The state Historic Preservation Office will ultimately decide whether to back an application to have 1,600 acres in Logan County named to the National Register of Historic Places. But first, officials want sponsors of the application to make some minor changes to the proposal.

Historians and environmentalists say the value of the site where more than 10,000 armed miners fought police and the U.S. Army in 1921 is equivalent to better-known battlefields like Pennsylvania's Gettysburg. But property owners and coal industry figures suggest the preservation effort is an attempt to block new surface mining operations.

Supporters of the historical designation -- decked out in red bandannas like the so-called Red Neck Army of miners who fought at Blair Mountain -- gathered in May at the state Capitol to urge West Virginia to support the application.

After the completion last year of the first archeological study of the site, supporters say they have the strongest case yet for designating Blair Mountain a nationally historic place.

"It would be a travesty if this site were not preserved for posterity," said Harvard Ayers, an archeologist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina who led the excavation.

Ayers said researchers found more than 1,000 artifacts from the battle, mostly spent shell casings. Because of the work, Ayers can reconstruct how battles were fought and pinpoint the place on the ridge where the miners were able to breach the line of defenders.

But the attempt to win an official designation -- which has come up several times since 1980 -- has been opposed by some property owners, including Massey Energy. The Richmond, Va.-based coal company has a subsidiary that plans to mine parts of the area that would be designated a historical landmark.

The designation would not necessarily stop the company from mountaintop removal mining, but it would trigger a federal permitting process that could delay or even halt the work. In 2005, the Massey subsidiary said it had already spent about $1 million to secure permits and prepare for the work.

Representatives for Massey and its lawyers did not return calls seeking comment.

"We have no agenda against the industry, but we are committed to saving this mountain," said Barbara Rasmussen, a West Virginia University history professor and an advocate of the historical designation. She said other mining techniques besides mountaintop removal could extract coal from the site and leave it largely intact.

The state preservation office could reject the application, pass it along to the federal level or ask for more information. Preservation officials say they have high hopes for it, but they want to make sure it meets stringent federal guidelines before passing it on.

To that end, the office has asked the applicants to make some revisions, such as adding new map coordinates and including more photographs. Sponsors say they expect to complete that work within a few weeks.

The 1921 battle was the climax of West Virginia's bitter and bloody conflict over union organization in the southern coalfields. When it was over, the power of the United Mine Workers was broken and didn't recover for more than a decade.

The struggle had national implications, leading to a period of frustration and defeat for organized labor that wouldn't end until the presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

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