CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Blair Mountain sits at the confluence of Appalachian struggles old and new.
In August of 1921, roughly 10,000 armed coal miners from the region converged and began marching toward the town of Logan, the seat of coal operator power, in an effort to unionize mines in southern West Virginia and ensure their very own human rights.
For these brave people -- whose labor fueled an expansion of American wealth and global power in the early 20th century -- collective bargaining, safe working conditions, and a modest measure of economic justice finally felt attainable.
When the fed-up miners ascended Blair Mountain, they confronted the coal industry's hired gunmen and bullet fire rang out in the hills of Logan County. The ensuing days-long battle is remembered as the largest armed uprising in United States history since the Civil War and a landmark event in the labor struggles of the early 20th century.
Only after the federal government intervened in the troubles did the miners -- many informed by their service in World War I -- lay down their arms. But their boldness laid the groundwork for the United Mine Workers of America's successful labor organizing in Southern West Virginia over a decade later and revealed to the nation the inequities of the coal industry's labor practices.
Ninety-two years later, Blair Mountain remains embattled territory as the struggle for social justice in the coalfields continues.
These days, one threat takes the shape of an extreme form of surface mining known as mountaintop removal. Two companies -- Arch Coal and Alpha Resources -- now own the mineral rights to the Blair Mountain Battlefield and thus the right to blast its ridges apart, disturbing archeological evidence that has the potential to unlock an illuminating, if overlooked, moment in American labor history, not to mention an alternative economy of heritage tourism.
Over several decades, brave community members have campaigned to preserve this land as a heritage site, state park, or otherwise publicly-managed land. Just two summers ago, a thousand West Virginians and their allies retraced on foot the miners' 50-mile march through coal country to bring attention to Blair's threatened status. All along the way, their efforts met with heady resistance by government, industry and neighbors.
Recently, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has indicated a willingness to meet with coal companies and community stakeholders to craft an agreement about the fate of the property. If this conversation moves forward, it's a clear victory to ensure the preservation of 1,700 acres of the battlefield site.
But this issue is bigger than 1,700 acres of Appalachian forest. Blair Mountain -- its story, its very soil -- contains lessons about the multi-faceted human impact of the coal industry in central Appalachia. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a spot on this earth that more clearly declares this impact than Blair.
Whether it's land controlled by outside corporations; a stream that's no longer safe to fish; hunting ground that has evaporated; water that's undrinkable; choking clouds of coal and rock dust; towns that have lost their people; or people who have lost their jobs in a boom-bust cycle --Blair Mountain and the community beneath it give us a neatly bundled package of What's Wrong With Appalachia. But Blair Mountain also gifts us the opposite.
Among its hollows and on its ridgetops, miners were inspired to seek justice despite all odds. In this way, Blair Mountain declares an unlikely story of hope and rebirth.