Lawsuit targets removal of West Virginia's Blair Mountain battlefield from historic registry


Back in 1921, more than 7,000 miners outraged over working conditions in southern West Virginia's coalfields faced off against an army of some 3,000 police backed by the coal companies in an effort to bring in the union.

When the fight that came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain ended five days later after President Harding called in the U.S. Army, anywhere from a dozen to a hundred miners lay dead, along with as many as 30 people from the other side. It was the largest open class war in U.S. history, and the country's largest armed insurrection aside from the Civil War.

Today, a new battle is brewing on Blair Mountain -- this time over the fate of the land, which is threatened by coal companies' plans for mountaintop removal mining. The latest volley in that fight came yesterday when an alliance of environmental and historic preservation groups filed a lawsuit challenging the National Park Service's decision to remove the Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register of Historic Places.

"West Virginians regard Blair Mountain as sacred ground," said Gordon Simmons, president of the West Virginia Labor History Association, which brought the suit along with the Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Friends of Blair Mountain.

Following a 13-year process that required the approval of a majority of the site's property owners, the National Park Service listed Blair Mountain on its National Register of Historic Places in March 2009. But nine months later, after coal companies eager to mine the Logan County site challenged the list of property owners who approved the listing, the Park Service struck the battlefield from its register. Sierra Club, OVEC and the National Trust for Historic Preservation asked the Park Service to revisit the decision, but it declined.

Robert Nieweg, director of the National Trust's Southern field office, said he believes the de-listing violated federal law and puts the site at risk of destruction.

"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," said Nieweg, whose organization named the site one of America's most endangered historic places back in 2006.

The need to protect the site is urgent: In July, Friends of Blair Mountain released a report documenting destruction that's already taken place at five locations within the battlefield.

The West Virginia Office of Historic Preservation is reportedly planning to renominate Blair Mountain for the national register. But that's not good enough for the site's defenders, who think it should never have been de-listed in the first place.

"The National Register listing was done correctly the first time and everything went according to procedure," said Simmons of the state labor history association. "The best and most expeditious remedy would be to reinstate the listing rather than go through the whole listing process again."

To read more about the campaign to save the historic battlefield, visit the Friends of Blair Mountain website.

(Newspaper photo of miners involved in the Battle of Blair Mountain from the West Virginia Archives.)