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Blair Mountain backers rally for preservation

Chip Ellis
Harvard Ayers, an Appalachian State University professor emeritus in anthropology and archaeology, speaks at a Tuesday afternoon rally promoting the preservation of Blair Mountain for historic, archaeological and economic reasons.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Friends of Blair Mountain held a rally Tuesday at the Culture Center and submitted a petition to the State Historical Preservation Office signed by more than 26,000 people supporting preservation of the historic site on the Boone-Logan county border.

Brandon Nida, a West Virginia native and doctoral student in archaeology at the University of California-Berkeley, said, "The largest labor battle in U.S. history took place on Blair Mountain back in 1921. We need to preserve it, develop it and promote the economy."

Joe Stanley, a retired miner born and raised in Mingo County, said, "I am not anti-mining or anti-coal. I am anti-mountaintop-removal mining. The Battle of Blair Mountain helped start the middle class."

Stanley said the SHPO is supposed "to protect historic structures, objects and sites."

The Friends of Blair Mountain also released a proposal Tuesday about how best to preserve the historic site, titled "Blair Mountain Historic Park."

Stanley said, "We don't only want to preserve something. We want to build something. We will have a museum, motels, restaurants, cultural events, shows and guided tours."

Today, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy for $7.1 billion in June, and Arch Coal control mineral rights under Blair Mountain.

Both companies have been making plans to open mountaintop-removal operations that would destroy the historic site.

Harvard Ayers, a retired professor of anthropology and archaeology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., said he began doing archaeological surveys on Blair Mountain in 2006.

"We spent all summer that year. We identified 14 battle sites along the 10 miles from Mill Creek Gap to Blair Gap. We found more than 1,100 artifacts."

Almost all the artifacts were bullet casings found 2 to 5 inches below the surface.

"The West Virginia Archives and History Commission unanimously approved our proposal," Ayers said, to place Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places.

Disputes then arose about who actually owns and controls mineral rights on the Blair Mountain properties. After the State Historic Preservation Office did not support putting the site on the National Register, it was removed from the register.

Susan Pierce, director of SHPO at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, did not have any comment about Monday's rally at the Culture Center.

In September 2010, a lawsuit seeking to restore Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the National Park Service by the Sierra Club, Friends of Blair Mountain, West Virginia Labor History Association and Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

In April, the United Mine Workers joined the pending lawsuit.

"We hope to hear what will happen this month," Ayers said. "If we win, it is back on the National Register."

Nida said the recently organized Coal County Tour Program brings between $8,000 and $10,000 to the local economy every night one of its buses stops at the Blair Mountain Battlefield.

"They are planning 12 tours next year," Nida said. "We have already had hundreds of visitors coming into the museum we have already developed in Blair."

Local residents, coal miners, academics and environmentalists all are working on efforts to save Blair Mountain, Nida said.

Fought over five days in late August and early September 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed confrontation in U.S. labor history.

More than 10,000 coal miners marched south from Marmet toward Logan County, seeking to organize nonunion miners into the UMW. They confronted about 3,000 law enforcement officers, many of whom worked directly for coal companies.

Miners and local police officers fought on Blair Mountain in sometimes deadly confrontations until U.S. Army units and fighter planes arrived and ended the conflict.

More information is available at www.friendsofblairmountain.org.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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