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Hundreds marching 5 days to save W.Va. mountain

BLAIR, W.Va. (AP) -- This steep-sided mountain in West Virginia's southern coalfields has a story. A story of strength and suffering, of battle and bloodshed. A story that played out 90 years ago and helped shape the laws that Americans labor under today.

 

But the story of Blair Mountain, where 7,500 to 10,000 unionizing coal miners waged the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, may be harder to tell if the mountain is obliterated. Much of the coal-rich mountain is owned by two energy companies that have gone to court to fight efforts to put it on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make mining there more difficult.

Hundreds of people determined to keep it from becoming another barren, flat-topped strip mine will retell the mountain's story this week as they stage a five-day, 50-mile march from Marmet to rally in what remains of the town of Blair. While the coal companies haven't disclosed immediate plans to start mining there, an active mine is nearby and permits have been issued for other operations nearby.

 

The protesters will walk along narrow country roads that often lack refuge from passing coal trucks, retracing the steps of the miners who made the journey in the late-summer heat of 1921.

 

"The goal for me is to have people connect with what's there the way I've connected with it because once that's done, you won't quit. It's too important,'' says Wilma Steele, a 60-year-old art teacher at Gilbert High School and the wife of a retired underground miner.

 

The cannonballs and shell casings that lie here, she says, are more than artifacts.

 

"And Blair Mountain is more than just a mountain,'' Steele says. "It was a chance for people to get over their differences and stand up for what's right.''

 

The miners marched for what was then unthinkable: They wanted to be paid by the hour, not the ton. They wanted a week that lasted five days, not seven. They wanted black miners and white miners paid the same.

They'd been trying to unionize for three years, and they'd had enough when a key ally, Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield, was killed by a coal company's private security guards.

On the battlefield of Blair Mountain -- some 1,600 acres stretched across 10 miles of ridgeline -- the miners met a dug-in army of law enforcement officers and hired guns who had fortified pickets, protective trenches, homemade bombs and machine guns.

 

At least 16 men died before the miners surrendered to the federal troops who arrived Sept. 5.

 

Back then, the marchers tied red bandannas around their necks to identify themselves. They scrambled through the brush carrying rifles and pistols.

 

Today's marchers -- an alliance of historic preservationists, environmental activists and underground miners -- will carry painted sheets and poster board signs held aloft by bamboo poles.

 

The battlefield was briefly on the National Register of Historic Places but later removed. A listing on the national register does not prevent mining, but it does entail a lengthier review process.

 

Federal law bars sites from inclusion if a majority of landowners object, and after a review of the dissenters, state and federal agencies reviewing the case ruled opponents dominated.

 

Much of the mountain is now owned by two coal companies -- St. Louis-based Arch Coal and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which last week bought out Massey Energy.

Alpha has an active strip mine just over a ridge from the battlefield, and the state Department of Environmental Protection says permits for other nearby operations have been issued.

 

Neither coal company commented on the protest, but they're fighting a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia to have the mountain's historic designation restored.

 

Last week, six groups including the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation took a new tack: They petitioned the DEP to declare the battlefield unsuitable for surface mining "due to its historical significance, natural beauty and the important archaeological sites located there.''

 

Spokeswoman Kathy Cosco says the agency is reviewing the 200-page document.

 

The United Mine Workers of America is siding with the preservationists in the court fight but isn't participating in the march.

President Cecil Roberts, whose great-uncle Bill Blizzard marched in 1921, said his ancestor "wasn't thinking about whether the streams along the base of the mountain ran clear or not.''

 

"He was thinking about the near-slavery conditions coal miners and their families were forced to endure. He was thinking about how to make their lives better,'' Roberts wrote in a recent newspaper opinion piece.

 

"Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the UMWA,'' he wrote. "Though we may not physically own the mountain's land, its legacy is ours.''

 

Chuck Keeney will be retracing the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Frank Keeney, who was president of the UMWA in West Virginia in 1921. A leader of the insurrection, he was later charged with but acquitted of treason.

 

Keeney grew up hearing the story of Blair Mountain at family reunions and visits with his grandparents. It was not, he says, taught in the sanitized state history course required of every eighth-grader in West Virginia.

 

"That's one of the reasons it's so endangered -- because so many people are unaware that an incredible event happened here,'' says Keeney, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

Blair Mountain, he says, "symbolizes everything for the American labor movement.''

 

It was the climax of the post-World War I industrial struggles going on throughout the U.S. and Europe -- a universal struggle for respect, fair wages and safe working conditions.

 

"All the things labor was able to achieve they wouldn't have been able to achieve without the struggles of these men,'' Keeney argues. "If you like weekends, then you should have an appreciation for labor.''

 

This march, he says, is "a memory of what they went through, an appreciation of the sacrifices and a reminder so that we don't go through that again.''

 

Twelve years ago, Jimmy Weekley organized a similar march. It drew only a fraction of the 600 registered to march this week.

 

Weekley, 71, is the last resident of lush and peaceful Pigeon Roost Hollow, below the proposed 2,300-acre site of Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal mine.

The mine would have been the largest in West Virginia, burying 7 miles of streams under rubble, including the babbling branch that runs past Weekley's front porch. As a boy, he caught trout from the stream on a pole his mother made, using crocheting thread for line and a safety pin for a hook.

 

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revoked a crucial water permit for the project, ruling it would irreparably damage the environment.

 

Mining, he says, has all but destroyed Blair, but he believes Blair Mountain has a future. It could become a national historical park that could bring economic development to Logan County.

 

He reckons the descendants of coal miners across the country would come to learn about their forefathers. There could be a sightseeing train with tour guides, he says. Riding trails. Hiking trails. Picnic grounds.

 

"The potential's here if they would just follow through with us.''

 


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