The Battle of Blair Mountain – Past and Present

The Camp Branch MTR site near Blair Mountain. It is moving straight toward the historic battlefield site.

Most people don’t know that the United States’ biggest class war was the Battle of Blair Mountain, wherein over 10,000 coal miners battled police, strikebreakers, and the US Army in their attempt to unionize. This battleground is now the site of another struggle–initially nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, the site was de-listed by the state in what amounts to behind-the-scenes machinations by Massey Coal, who wants to strip-mine this historic region. I was overseas and out of touch when this was all happening, but it was ably reported by the Afarensis blog.

Brandon Nida, a UC Berkeley Anthropology Ph.D. candidate, grew up in the area and has made Blair Mountain the subject of his dissertation research. He gave a talk at our departmental Brown Bag meeting, bringing up many salient points that shows the true power of activist, community-based contemporary archaeology in action.

Coal mining has been in the news constantly with numerous cave-ins trapping poor miners. But only recently has there been greater attention to the environmental devastation caused by the practice of mountaintop removal, or MTR, a process that annihilates both the mountains and the valleys below, which are filled with by-products and are essentially poisoned by the process of cleaning the coal. Interesting side note that Brandon made in his talk–the anti-MTR movement has a high percentage of pilot volunteers. They fly over these areas and can see the full extent of the devastation, something that is kept from the general public.

Brandon has been trying to raise awareness of this practice, which can be highly divisive, as mining jobs are seen as the only means of survival in an economy that is beyond bad in rural West Virginia. People who protest this practice are generally seen as coming from the “big cities” without any connection to the place. Brandon and his fellow activists are able to dispute this characterization–they come from the community and have found ways to use archaeology to open spaces for dialogue in this debate.

For example, Brandon has been trying to identify the many makes and calibers of shells used by the rag-tag Blair Mountain resistance army and these objects are of considerable interest to residents who overwhelmingly own guns and shoot game for sustenance and sport. He carries some of these shells to meetings, inviting an active participation from residents to comment and speculate on their past. There’s also the matter of the family plots that dot the mountain. Legislation was passed protecting these cemetery sites, under a coalition of churches, miners, politicians and residents, providing a consensus over the value of history and the miners connectedness to the land. Now it is a race to get these plots registered and even so, they become what Brandon called “islands in the sky”–small patches of greenery and stones surrounded by a toxic, barren landscape.

I would highly encourage you to support the Friends of Blair Mountain, an organization with a new website that already has a wealth of information regarding the struggle to preserve this important, threatened site. The Blair Mountain Gang’s Flickr stream is also worth watching.

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