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by Regina Hendrix | 2005

The State Historic Preservation Office and local and state-wide citizens' groups agree: The Blair Mountain battle site should be preserved. Coal companies prefer obliteration. So what else is new?

Friends of the Mountains’ Blair Mountain nomination was the first item on the agenda at the May 6, 2005 meeting of the  State Archives and History Commission. The Commission met at the Earl Ray Tomblin Convention Center (part of the Chief Logan State Park) where a standing room only crowd had assembled.  After the meeting was called to order, Friends of the Mountains consultant, Frank Unger of Past Respects, was the first presenter.  Frank made a compelling PowerPoint presentation, along with maps and aerial photography of the nomination area, (a 10-mile intact ridgeline, consisting of 1600 acres).  (Se

Bob McCluskey, a Jackson & Kelly attorney representing Friends of Coal, was next and, as expected, he was NOT in favor of preserving this piece of history.  He nitpicked at the nomination procedure and then he and the landholding companies used the old jobs argument in an attempt to convince the assembled crowd that
Appalachia must be leveled and labor history destroyed in order to provide employment and national security.

Blair Mountain ridgeline

Mr. McCluskey and his landholder and miner friends neglected to mention that as coal production has risen, coal employment has dropped nearly 75 percent in the last 20 years due in large part to MTR which employs a handful of blasters and heavy equipment operators.  Compare that to the number of employees needed for underground mining.  Well, heck, folks, if 
Blair Mountain is determined eligible for the National Register and the companies cannot blow up the ridge, they might have to recover the coal by conventional methods and this could become known as the Blair Jobs Bill.  We could regain some of the employment we’ve lost to mountaintop removal.

After the presentations SHPO staff pointed out that the preservation of Blair Mountain would not restrict the use of the land within the nomination area.  (For example, an owner can continue to live in a listed house; convert a listed property to another use, continue to farm ground where a listed archaeological site may be located, conduct new construction on the site, et cetera.)

Next, there were 20-some speakers who commented on the nomination, the first of which was our mystery guest--William C. Blizzard-- in person, telling us of his recollection of his father’s trial in Charles Town. Wes Harris, publisher of “When Miners March” then produced large, long-lost color pictures of the Blizzard family including Bill, who led the miners during the Blair march, his wife, Rae; and Bill’s mother, Ma Blizzard.  The Blizzard family line up occupied front row seats for the duration of the meeting. After his presentation Wes presented the Commission with a copy of “When Miners March” which was written by William C. Blizzard in the 1950’s.  Wes also presented microfilm for the WV Archives from the Princeton University Library, Labor Daily articles from which the material for “When Miners March” was drawn.

Following the Blizzard family introductions, there were supporting statements by WV author, Denise Giardina and labor historian, Fred Barkey. (Fred was not able to be in attendance, so his statement was read for the record by Scott Straight).  We heard from the JCPASH (Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save our Heritage) activists who were recently successful in saving the Charles Town Jail from demolition.  We heard from many other local people who had supported and worked on the Blair nomination for the past 18 months. Of course, there were some who didn’t support the nomination, such as the Dingess-Rum Landholding company and suppliers of heavy equipment used in mountaintop removal.

Another honored guest in attendance was Kenneth King, a Logan resident who has been working for the past 10-plus years to save this piece of history.  Kenny is an amateur archaeologist and historian.  He and our consultant, Frank Unger, collaborated in the preparation of the nomination and the Power Point presentation. I came to know Kenny through my membership in the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.   When Kenny realized he needed help with preparation of the nomination he approached Friends of the Mountains which is an alliance of environmental organizations consisting of Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch and Larry Gibson’s Keeper of the Mountains Foundation.

The Blair nomination coincides with the preservation of the jail and the designation of Route 17 as a Scenic Byway.  (If you have a Scenic Byway, it seems to me you ought to save something for people to see.)  I recently learned from the JCPASH folks (Carol Gallant and Doug Estepp) that they plan to have a museum in their part of the historic Charles Town jail.  This would be a blessing for tourism in West Virginia and would point tourists to the Blair Mountain Battle site.

Tourism dollars would remain in the state and would not be sent to New York, Richmond or St. Louis to be used as bonuses for CEO’s or distributed as dividends for stockholders in some faraway city.   We could begin to refocus our economy on some sustainable development which would be passed on to our descendants.  My family has lived in southern WV for over 200 years.  I want to see an improved economy and stop the exodus of family and friends. There is a better way.

As the meeting drew to a close, the vote was taken and the Commission members voted unanimously to forward the nomination to National Park Service.  We, Friends of the Mountains,  the student coalitions we work with, local residents, plus authors and historians, et cetera, all breathed a sigh of relief that the effort to preserve Blair Mountain had taken a giant step forward. This nomination has been attempted several times during the past 25 years and for various reasons it was never presented to National Park Service.

Before we close, let me digress for a moment and tell you of my 45-year economic exile.  In the late 50’s I was forced to leave WV because of a lack of job opportunities.  I was gone for a long time; however, the desire to return to the WV hills never left me.  When I retired in 1998, I came back to my hometown and the place where I was born.  Sad to say, I found that the economy had further deteriorated.  As I traveled the trails and back roads where I grew up I learned that much of the land had become uninhabitable.  The population in the southern part of the state was smaller than when I left.  Among the 50 states we are 49th in income and 11th in tax burden.  Don’t you think it’s time for us to try something different?   This is a call to environmentalists and preservationists to form an alliance and work together to save our historic sites and buildings and to build a sustainable economy. 

Thanks to all (especially those in the State Historic Preservation Office) who labored long hours to move the nomination forward in order to preserve labor history and to acknowledge that working people in West Virginia’s coalfields contributed mightily to this country’s labor history.  The Commission’s unanimous vote was an acknowledgement of the importance of this piece of history.  It is a tremendous demonstration of respect for Appalachians and their culture and heritage.

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