West Virginia is no stranger to labor struggles. And one specific struggle should never be forgotten.
The Battle of Blair Mountain still represents an important date in state history.
Especially on Labor Day, which is observed the first Monday in September after becoming a federal holiday in 1894.
It’s an opportunity to reflect on the past, and remember workers’ sacrifices.
In August of 1921, coal country became the scene of the largest armed insurrection in the U.S. since the Civil War.
An estimated army of 10,000 miners marched on Blair Mountain in Logan County in protest of years of mistreatment by the coal companies.
When they reached Blair Mountain the miners clashed with 3,000 coal company supporters and police. It wasn’t a surprise.
Since the 1800’s the coal fields of Logan, McDowell and Mingo counties had been repressed by the coal company’s “town system.”
Miners had to lease their equipment from the coal companies, they were paid extremely low wages in “scrip” that could only be used at the company store.
The safety conditions in the mines were deplorable.
The United Mine Workers Association had attempted to unionize the miners, but the coal companies used intimidation and violence to keep the union out of the coal fields.
Armed coal miners from the Kanawha Valley, and other counties including Boone, Fayette, Mingo, McDowell and Logan gathered at Marmet.
A march to Logan and Mingo counties was planned to rescue miners who’d been jailed or mistreated as a result of their union activities.
State officials didn’t back down, and joined coal companies to keep the miners from entering Logan County.
These opposing forces met at Blair Mountain which is located near the Boone and Logan borders. The bloody battle raged for almost a week.
Ultimately President Warren G. Harding sent 2,500 federal troops and a bomber squadron.
Sounds of rifles and machine guns echoed in the air. Even bomb-dropping bi-planes were used during insurrection.
Federal troops, ordered to intervene by the president, did not arrive until early September and by then a million rounds of ammunition had been used and dozens of lives had been lost.
Nearly 1,000 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason against the state.
Some of the miners ended up being acquitted by sympathetic juries, but others found themselves sentenced to years in prison.
Though many lives were lost the battle raised needed awareness to the dangerous conditions miners were forced to work in.
The battle led to the union changing its tactics, and in the end resulted in a stronger organized labor movement in many other industries and labor union affiliations.
Blair Mountain is a special place that has an important and powerful tale to tell about West Virginia.
But it was also significant to the history of labor in the U.S.: It’s credited with having set in motion a national movement to better working conditions across the country.