‘You load 16 tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.’ These lyrics from Tennessee Ernie Ford’s popular song ’16 Tons’ encapsulates the day-to-day life of a miner in the state of West Virginia. Entirely situated on the Appalachian Mountains, the state had been a coal mining bastion following the Civil War. In 1917, the state produced upwards of eighty million tons of coal, and it was done so in incredibly brutal conditions.
Sometimes, the people who would soon be living in miner towns had no idea where they were. The second wave of immigration from Europe to the United States was in full swing at this time, and companies took advantage of unsuspecting new arrivals. One such instance is seen in the company town of Brooklyn, West Virginia. Arrivals from Ellis Island were promised a fast train to Brooklyn under the assumption that it was the borough of New York City. They were left surprised and confused as they got off the one-way train.
Coal companies establish “company towns” in the state where miners worked, ate, lived, and slept. Everything the miners did would go through the company in some way or another. They bought food and supplies at the company general store, paid for medical treatment from company doctor, and in most cases became immediately indebted because they had to pay for their own mining equipment. But they were not paid in US dollars, or any government issued tender. As a means to prevent inflation due to the number of miners in the country, companies paid miners with company scrip, a substitute for currency that was only accepted at specific company stores. Safety conventions were minimal and often left miners self-reliant. Tunnel collapses were frequent, most miners developed lung problems, and there was a constant fear of Kettle Bottoms, petrified tree stumps in the ceiling, would fall on a miner’s head. And, of course, there was absolutely no tolerance for labour unions.
All these factors would culminate in the largest armed uprising in the US since the Civil War and the largest labour uprising in US history.
Since the 1890s, the coals mines of southern West Virginia refused to hire unionized labour and strictly enforced this position with security checks. It was in 1919 when the new president of the United Mine Workers, John L. Lewis, decided to resist the decades of this company policy. Other unionization efforts came from figures such Mary G. Harris “Mother” Jones, who’s speeches inspired more than 3,000 workers to join the union.
These unionization efforts were noticed by coal companies and responded with the mass firing of any union-joiners. The Baldwin-Felts private detective agency acted as the long arm of the coal companies’ authority and saw the eviction of thousands of families with unionized mining workers. Though advantaged in money, machinery, and men, the companies would soon lose the edge to motivation.
19th of May 1920 served as the day where miners of all companies, backgrounds, and ideals became unified under one symbol. That symbol was a man named Sid Hatfield, the Police Chief of the town of Matewan. Baldwin-Felts agents attempted to evict families of unionized mine workers. When approached by Hatfield to know what authority they operated on, the agents showed him a fraudulent warrant. When Hatfield denied the agents their demands, a shoot-out erupted where all the Baldwin-Felts were killed in the process. This event, known as the Matewan Massacre, provided the miners with an example that the seemingly invincible and unstoppable Baldwin-Felts could be defeated. Hatfield became a legendary figure among miners and his example increased the efforts at unionization.
Following the massacre, Hatfield was placed on trial for killing the Felt agents. As he entered the McDowell County courthouse, he was murdered by Baldwin-Felts agents. The news of the murder spread throughout the miner camps and infuriated the miners to the breaking point. Now that the hero of theirs was killed in cold blood by the same oppressive forces they lived under, the one thing left to do was take up arms. It was the Little Coal River where the first miner victory was achieved. Logan County troopers were disarmed and forced to retreat by the increasingly united miner forces.
The United Mine Workers and Mother Jones called for a rally at the state capitol in Charleston on 7 August 1921. Union leaders such as Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney met with Governor Ephraim Morgan to discussion miner demands. Morgan dismissed all the demands and lit the fuse that would explode as the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The gloves were off as all sides began to build up their forces. Upwards of 10,000 militant miners had gathered under the leadership of Bill Blizzard gathered in Boone County to march towards Mingo County to set up the unions by force. Most participating miners were veterans of the First World War and had been battle tested in Europe prior to this uprising. Regardless of race or background, the mining forces stood together in arms as they fought for the right to unionize.
Separating Boone from Mingo was Logan County where its sheriff Don Chafin had spent days assembling a counter force of 3,000 and hired private planes to drop explosive and poisonous bombs left over from World War One to the stop the miners from unionizing Logan. 25th of August 1921 was where the Battle is marked to have begun with clashes occurring between miners and Logan troops along the border of Logan and Boone. Governor Morgan organized the West Virginia National Guard to confront the miners and provide support to Chafin. President Warren G. Harding threatened to send in federal troops and bombers in reaction to the skirmishes.
On the 29th of August 1921 the individual skirmishes shifted into a full-on battle. Chafin’s planes began dropping bombs. Though heavily outnumbered by the miners, Chafin’s fortifications and weaponry proved more effective and kept the miners at bay. Despite this, the miners almost made it to the town of Logan, but hopes were dashed when on the 30th August, 27,000 members of the West Virginia National Guard had arrived in Logan County. It is estimated that Chafin’s side experienced thirty casualties while miner’s estimates lay between fifty and one hundred.
On the 2nd September 1921, Federal Troops arrived following orders from President Harding. As most miners in the conflict were veterans, they refused to fire upon federal troops and Bill Blizzard effectively surrendered by telling mining forces to return to their homes. 985 miners were arrested on several grounds relating to murder, conspiracy, and treason. Some miners were acquitted by juries after using the remains of the bombs dropped to show the remorseless tactics used by both the government and mining corporations. Blizzard was one of those who used bombs as evidence, and he was acquitted.
The Battle of Blair Mountain was a Kettle Bottom to the head towards miner unionization where United Mine Worker membership plummeted from 50,000 to 10,000. This was one of the many instances where labour unionization decreased as the era known as the “Roaring’ 20s” saw heavy shifts towards economic conservatism.
In the long-term effects of the Battle, however, saw greater awareness raised to miner safety and labour rights. It was not until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s various New Deal programs that unions would once again regain stable ground. It was in the 1970s when the most comprehensive mining safety legislation was passed. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, created in 1977, ensured that two yearly inspections were required for all surface mine operations and required mandatory mine rescue teams. However, these changes may have been too late for the industry altogether.
Since 1917, the coal mining economy West Virginia built itself on declined to a recent collapse. In 2013, the state saw a decline of coal exports by 40 per cent, contributing to a swath of economic problems for the state. As of 2019, the state had a poverty rate of 16 per cent, six points higher than the national average. The coal industry is largely subsidized now as the state economy tries to grapple with finding a new industry while dealing with its geographic position.
Despite the economic decline of coal mining, West Virginia continues to hold some of the strongest, yet also most unhighlighted, voices of labour movements. In 2018, public school teachers and staff led strikes across the state from February to March in response to low pay. It resulted in a 5 per cent pay increase but also inspired other state teacher unions to strike for themselves.
As for the Battle of Blair Mountain, it’s legacy has unfortunately been largely forgotten in the minds of most annals of history. There are memorials and museums dedicated to the history of mining in the state, but outside of the mountainous terrain its legacy is largely unknown. It is one of the infinite examples that history can be found anywhere, and the importance of these forgotten events can never be underestimated. Like the state it took place in, it remains an isolated, wild, and wonderfully interesting event.
Written by Sam Marks
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