Groups sue over Blair Mountain de-listing

September 9, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

This just in via press release:

The Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Friends of Blair Mountain and the West Virginia Labor History Association filed a legal challenge today to reverse the decision by the National Park Service to remove the Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register of Historic Places. Filed in federal district court in Washington, D.C., the lawsuit alleges that the decision to delist Blair Mountain—the site of a famous 1921 battle in Logan County, West Virginia, involving 10,000 coal miners and law enforcement officials clashing over the right to unionize—was arbitrary, capricious, and contrary to the National Park Service’s own regulations.

In 2006, Dr. Harvard Ayers, an Appalachian State University archeologist and member of the Friends of Blair Mountain, found a total of 15 different battlesites within the Blair Mountain Battlefield. “The area contains a number of archaeological sites, many of which have yet to be adequately studied. These sites are in danger of being permanently destroyed unless the Park Service returns Blair Mountain to the National Register,” said Dr. Ayers. “Coal companies have acquired a portion of the battlefield and have shown their willingness to play hardball to keep the site open to surface mining despite the clear historic value of the Blair Mountain Battlesite.”

Blair Mountain is the site of the largest armed insurrection on U.S. soil since the Civil War. A significant event in American labor history, coal miners from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) fought for days along the Blair Mountain ridgeline for their right to unionize. “The Battle of Blair Mountain was fought by the UMWA to make a better life for coal miners throughout southern West Virginia—to see their legacy be destroyed is unacceptable,” said Kenny King, a Logan County resident who has been working to save Blair Mountain for the past 20 years.

Named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2006, the fight to save Blair Mountain has been ongoing. The National Park Service first listed Blair Mountain in the National Register on March 30, 2009, without objections from a majority of property owners. By law, a site cannot be listed in the National Register if a majority of owners within the boundaries of the site file notarized objections to the listing. Nine months later, the Park Service, responding to pressure from coal companies eager to strip mine the site altered the list of property owners based on one-sided “corrections” presented by the coal companies, and decided that a small majority objected to listing the site. On this basis, the Park Service removed Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register. Sierra Club, OVEC, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation asked the Park Service to reconsider its decision because it did not follow applicable regulations in removing the site, but the agency declined to do so.

“We strongly support the lawsuit because we believe that de-listing Blair Mountain was a mistake that violates federal law,” said Robert Nieweg, director of the Southern Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “The decision to remove Blair Mountain from the National Register has gravely endangered this important site because the National Register listing would qualify Blair Mountain for special protection under West Virginia law.”

“The Blair Mountain Battlefield is one of West Virginia’s most valuable historical resources,” said Brandon Nida, a local resident and West Virginia native. “In addition to the historical significance, the potential for heritage tourism and small business growth from the sustainable development of Blair Mountain is enormous. But due to the short-term goals of the coal industry, all this potential could be destroyed forever.”

Recent reports that the West Virginia Office of Historic Preservation is initiating a plan to re-nominate Blair Mountain for listing on the National Register are too vague to provide any comfort, said Regina Hendrix, a West Virginia Sierra Club and OVEC member who was involved in the original National Register of Historic Places listing process for Blair Mountain. “There is no need to spend time initiating a process to re-nominate Blair Mountain for the National Register since the original listing, which took more than 13 years from start to finish, was proper the first time around and should be reinstated. It’s a significant waste of time and resources to start the nomination process all over again and unacceptable to leave the site unprotected while this lengthy process begins again.”

Gordon Simmons, President of the West Virginia Labor History Association, added, “West Virginians regard Blair Mountain as sacred ground. The National Register listing was done correctly the first time and everything went according to procedure. The best and most expeditious remedy would be to reinstate the listing rather than go through the whole listing process again.”

Local residents support efforts to challenge Blair Mountain’s removal from the National Register.

“We’re now engaged in the second battle of Blair Mountain—one to preserve it for future generations. The jail that held the pro-union coal miners after the Battle at Blair Mountain was listed on the National Register. Does it make sense to list the jail and blow away the battle site?” Hendrix added.

The plaintiffs are represented by Washington, D.C. attorney Andrea C. Ferster and Sierra Club senior attorney Aaron Isherwood.

6 Responses to “Groups sue over Blair Mountain de-listing”

  1. Monty says:

    Another of the wreched ironies of living in this state – we have to sue to get outside agencies to do their job, because our own state regulatory agencies fail us. And those state regulatory agencies have been driven by the same thing that drives most things in this state, King Coal. I hope the good guys win this one. One mountain more or less that isn’t flattened to a bald stub won’t make much difference in the long run, will it, King Coal?

  2. Phil Smith says:

    The UMWA strongly supports listing the Blair Mountain battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places. President Roberts has repeatedly spoken out and written about that. We believe the delisting was wrong.

    Blair Mountain is, indeed, hallowed ground that must be preserved for future generations to visit so they can be reminded of what happens when government steps back and allows powerful corporate interests to run roughshod over the human rights of working families.

    Gee, sounds kind of like what the tea partiers are advocating these days. Guess some things really do never change.

  3. Monty says:

    The larger issue here, or one of them, is whose rights should tump whose? Is the long-term preservation of Blair Mountain worth more to the people of WV and the United States as a whole for its signifigance to the larbor movement and as an armed insurrection, or is it worth more for the short-term, one-shot economic gain of mining it for the coal?

    Tangible property rights vs. intangible historical rights … which one is more “important”? In the grand scheme of things you can argue that property rights are the most important, and the best and highest use, because you can’t eat history and the view from the top of Blair Mountain won’t keep your lights on or warm you house in the winter, while the coal from it will. While making money for the company and the people who mine the coal, enabling them to feed and clothe and house their families. But … only for a brief time. Once that lump of coal is mined, and washed, and shipped, and burned, and turned into electricity or whatever, its usefulness is gone forever and can never be recovered.

    On the other hand … if the relatively small area that encompasses the suggested Blair Mountain Battlefield is affored protection by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places, it will be available for generations to learn from and to gain understanding from. Can you put a dollar value on that? No. But somethings it is the most important things in life that have no real price.

  4. Scott14 says:

    Phil, while I don’t really have a opinion on the matter one way or other. I do think future generations sould learn what really happened on blair. Lawlessness was running roughshod throught the area and the US army sent Billy Mitchel in with his planes to bomb that mob. Do we want to teach our children to use violence when they don’t get there way? Imagine if this was to happen today. All of those involved in taking up arms against the armed forces of the united states would be considered a enemy of the state and possibly sent to gitmo.

  5. Monty says:

    Scott14 – here’s the thing. History can be a messy business, and usually it’s the winners who get to write it. Who actually “won” at Blair Mountain? Was it the miners, some of whom ended up shot and killed, some of whom later ended up being tried for treason, or was it Don Chafin and his private army who turned them back, also suffering some killed and wounded in the process? There was plenty of violence to go around, from BOTH sides, before the US Army stepped between then and stopped it. And for the record, it was planes from Chafin’s private army that dropped bombs on the miners. The Army’s DH-4s were used strictly in shows of force.

  6. Tab says:

    If one believes this to be a hot mess, visit the State Museum and look at the exhibits based around Blair. Monty made a great point that the winners write the history, but he who holds the money does as well. I wonder who provided or ‘donated’ money to MY state museum that is supposed to reflect MY history, MY heritage, MY ancestors, etc…It’s great to save a place of historical significance, but if the history is not accurate what good is the place? It’s just another mountain. I want Blair to be re-listed just as much as anyone else, but as a future historian/education major I would like see accurate information in our text books…Kudos to the historians who have tried to inform those of corrections needed! Read WHEN MINERS MARCH by William Blizzard. Don’t know who William Blizzard is? You need too.

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