Book Review: ‘The Road to Blair Mountain’

Have you ever thought that our whole nation is West Virginia?  Me neither until I read The Road to Blair Mountain: Saving a Mine Wars Battlefield From King Coal by Charles B. Keeney.  Stick with me; this will take some explaining.

In popular lore, West Virginia is a one-dimensional piece of mountain territory dominated mostly by a single industry and ruled by King Coal.  That may sound highly unusual until you ask, “Well, what is California except a piece of territory dominated by King Tech?  And Missouri — all the way to western Iowa and western Kansas — some flat land ruled by King Ag?”  Hold that thought that Mark Zuckerberg is really a coal operator.

The Battle of Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia, in 1921 was the largest battle on our national soil since the Civil War.  For five days in September, 10,000 or so coal miners, led by Charles Francis Keeney and Bill Blizzard, faced off with 3,000 or so coal company guards, the local sheriff and 300 deputies, and a notorious private police force, Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency.  The miners had their hunting rifles.  The company guards had machine guns and were dug in on trenches high on the mountain.

Miners gathered after the battle ended. (Via the West Virginia Coal Mining Museum)

Before the miners — deemed “Red Necks” from the bandanas they wore — eventually surrendered to the U.S. Army, an estimated 100 people had been killed, a million shells had been fired, and poison gas and bombs left over from World War I had been dropped on the battlefield by airplane.  Some pretty big heavyweights, including President Warren Harding and General Billy Mitchell, the founding father of the U.S. Air Force, got involved.

If you’ve never heard of this battle, often described as “Labor’s Gettysburg” for its significance in labor history, don’t feel bad.  Neither had the author of The Road to Blair Mountain, the great-grandson of march leader Charles Francis Keeney until he finally wrangled a bit of family history from his reluctant kin.  The coal industry made sure the battle was never mentioned in the required state history courses in secondary schools, and until recently the battle didn’t come up in college courses either.

Hidden history bothers Charles Keeney tremendously.  He happens to hold a doctorate in history and teaches the subject in a state community college in southern West Virginia.  What makes this book — a combination history and memoir — so fascinating is that Keeney is one of the main actors in saving the historic battlefield from being devastated by mountaintop removal coal mining, one of the most destructive methods ever devised to extract fossil fuel from mountains.

A strip mine near the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain. (Appalachian Voices)

I hold a degree in history and do not associate history with unexpected endings and certainly not often with adventure and excitement.  We all know the little guy wins only when he manages to shoot from the highest hill or somehow to find a rich ally willing to drain its treasury to defeat a common enemy. (That would be the French in the American Revolution).  Keeney makes the battles with the agencies and coal companies suspenseful to the very end.

The author and the little band of Friends of Blair Mountain defy the historical norms.  They do not have a treasury (former Congressman Ken Heckler saves the day on a big march day by donating $500 for gas), an attorney, a public relations agent, any full-time staff, or a guidebook on how David can defeat Goliath when the giant has a thousand heads that have to be hit with a slingshot.  This is where Keeney makes a real contribution with the book: He suspects we all have a Blair Mountain that needs to be protected from a King Somebody or King Something.  In his words:

Battlefield map. (1921, New York Tribune, creative commons)

“Grassroots activists and indigenous people, often in rural areas, find themselves facing enormous odds when protecting sacred landscapes against the financial and political might of major extraction and agricultural industries. Such individuals and groups may find valuable lessons in this book….My theory is that people from different regions of America will find more similarities than differences in the local politics, economic problems, and social issues described in this book.”

In March 2009, the 1,700 or so acres of Blair Mountain were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, set to be protected from mining forever.  In December of the same year, it was mysteriously delisted.  Three coal companies had been permitted to do mountain top removal mining adjacent to the battlefield and the National Guard was…

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