By Cindy Rank
THE GOOD NEWS
The listing of Blair Mountain Battlefield on the National Register of Historic Places has been re-affirmed!
As you may recall from previous issues of the Voice, the Battlefield was nominated in July 2005, officially listed in March 2009, challenged a month later, and delisted at the end of 2009. Now, after years of political and legal wrangling the earlier delisting has been determined to be in error and the Blair Mountain Battlefield returned to its rightful place on the National Register.
The affirming Decision Memorandum was signed by the Keeper of the National Register on June 27, 2018.
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
The Battle of Blair Mountain, probably the largest labor uprising in the U.S. history, took place in southern West Virginia in 1921 when thousands of armed coal miners confronted armed mine company-supported forces trying to block unionization. The bloody confrontation ended only when federal troops were sent in to quell the uprising.
The struggle to protect the historic site has itself been a long uphill battle [no pun intended – really].
My first introduction to the effort to preserve Blair Mountain was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Highlands Conservancy was lobbying along with the UMWA (United Mineworkers of America) for reasonable safety and environmental regulations to control some of the abuses caused by the increased size and mechanization of coal mining that defied existing regulations tailored to less massive mining techniques.
During that time the UMWA fought somewhat unsuccessfully to keep mining away from the area of the historic battle of Blair Mountain. The controversy at that time centered on a specific mountaintop removal coal mine permit that was submitted surreptitiously and would literally destroy the mountain. The effort to limit the extent of mining went as far as the West Virginia Supreme Court where the justices questioned why the area wasn’t already on the National Register of Historic Places and protected from mining.
Paul Nyden wrote in the Charleston Gazette on May 8, 1991 that “much of the 45-minute debate focused on why Blair Mountain – the site of the largest armed confrontation in U.S. labor history – is not on the National Register of Historic Places.”
He noted Justice Margaret Workman as asking: “Are you saying Blair Mountain is not eligible because it has not been nominated? … My house is on the National Register. I would think that Blair Mountain could be. Did the bureaucracy run amok here? Why hasn’t this been nominated?”
I vaguely recall the Union may have managed to preserve one small peak of Blair Mountain, but mining in and around Blair has been substantial and encroached on much of the area of the original battle.
Though I don’t remember details of what transpired around the question of the National Register during the succeeding decade or so, what I do know is that local residents – Kenny King primary among them – kept pushing for official recognition of Blair Mountain as an important part of West Virginia history and culture and deserved to be protected from mining and other human inflicted devastation.
It is because of people like Kenny King, Jimmy Weekly, Chuck Keeney and later Friends of Blair Mountain, researcher Harvard Ayers and his students that the artifacts and locations of the pivotal moments of the battle had been amassed, documented and mapped sufficiently for the West Virginia State Historical Protection Officer (WV SHPO) to define an acceptable boundary of the area of significance [not the entire battlefield I might note] and nominate the area for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
That was in 2005. It took another 5 years to clarify and fine-tune the record and overcome the first industry challenge before the Keeper officially placed the Blair Mountain Battlefield on the National Register in March 2009.
What ensued was a rather complicated back-and-forth about property ownership and the numbers of owners who objected to the listing of Blair Mountain. [i.e. Under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Park Service regulations if a majority of property owners object to a listing, the property cannot be listed.]
Challenges were mounted by industry not willing to give up even the slightest strip of coal that might someday be mined. Legal representatives for Natural Resource Partners, Arch Coal, and Massey Energy produced names of people who they contended were property owners and who objected to the listing but hadn’t been counted in the original process.
West Virginia State Historical Protection Officer (WV SHPO) also questioned the number of property owners and the number of objections the office had identified when it verified the nomination in January 2009 and ultimately determined it had neglected to count and submit all valid objections.
Responding to those challenges, the Keeper decided that Blair Mountain was erroneously listed on the National Register in March 2009 and removed it from the Register on December 30, 2009.
Public outcry was heard far and wide and attention to the issue was highlighted by actions such as the two marches of hundreds of citizens who walked the same route taken by the union miners in 1921 – i.e. from Marmet along the Kanawha River in Kanawha County over the steep mountains through Boone County and on to Blair Mountain in Logan County.
By September 2010 West Virginia Highlands Conservancy joined a coalition of environmental and historic preservation groups including Friends of Blair Mountain, Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Labor History Association and the National Trust for Historic Preservation in filing a complaint in the US District Court for the District of Columbia against the Keeper, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Park Service challenging the December 2009 removal of Blair Mountain from the National Register. The UMWA participated in the litigations as amicus curiae.
On April 11, 2016, after the inevitable years of legal filings, the D.C. court vacated the December 2009 “delisting” as arbitrary and capricious and sent the delisting decision back to the Keeper of the National Register to reconsider its action.
What followed was months and months of tedious deed research, review of property records, and comparison with WV state tax records (a challenge no matter the county in West Virginia) to determine the ownership of parcels within the Battlefield Boundary. The effort also included further research into the actual number of property owners who had opposed the listing.
At long last, on June 27, 2018 the Keeper signed the Decision Memorandum affirming the Battle of Blair Mountain’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Perhaps someday it will be easier to urge West Virginia to recognize the inherent value of all its citizens and its mountain culture rather than sacrificing more and more of our heritage to the fast buck and the almighty dollar.
For now, suffice it to say that many dreams and plans and challenges remain before this designation is fully recognized as the honorable testimony to West Virginia’s proud but difficult history it is meant to be.
Note:Thanks to Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette you can read the Keeper’s actual decision in the cloud at: