Trey Kay Published

Remembering The Battle Of Blair Mountain And Its Significance To American History


This story was featured in WVPB’s series “Coal — And The Way Forward” and aired in West Virginia Morning on Sept. 15, 2021.

We travel back in time 100 years, when West Virginia was home to our nation’s most violent labor uprising.

For some, the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 was a watershed moment when coal workers decided that their rights were worth fighting and even dying for. The armed insurrection pitted 10,000 against 3,000 heavily armed coal industry guards and state troopers.

It was the largest labor uprising in American history and the largest armed conflict since the Civil War. Us & Them producer Trey Kay followed the path of the miners on their march to Mingo to learn what precipitated the conflict.

An Enigma In Modern History

The Battle of Blair Mountain was a complex conflict that was the result of a number of social and economic forces that came to a head in West Virginia’s coal country after World War I.

The result was an armed march from Marmet to Mingo.

To understand the complex history, we followed the path of the miners on their march to Mingo, and we brought along the foremost expert on this event — Prof. Charles Keeney.

Following World War I, the economic forces at play in the West Virginia coal fields hit miners hard. They became pawns in a power battle between the coal industry and the gathering momentum of the union movement.

“So the coal industry in West Virginia felt it was crucial to their bottom line to keep the union out,” Keeney said. “The United Mine Workers, in order to keep their contracts in these other states, felt it was crucial to organize West Virginia to keep their organization afloat.”

The West Virginia coalfields were ripe for organization. Working conditions were hazardous, and the health of miners was constantly at risk. Miners were paid with company currency. And workers could only spend their pay at company-owned stores.

For over 20 years, mining families had protested, organized, and sometimes even gone to war with their employers in order to improve these conditions. In 1921, they finally had enough. The last straw was the murder of one of their greatest allies: a chief of police in Mingo County named Sid Hatfield.

That was on Aug. 1, 1921.

“And on Aug. 7, they had this huge meeting at the Capitol with 5,000 or 6,000 miners,” Keeney said. “They tried to petition the governor. Gov. Morgan would not meet with the miners. That’s when my great-grandfather famously came out and told the miners that the only way you can get your rights is with a high-powered rifle — told them to go home and await the call to March.”

As it turns out, Keeney’s great-grandfather was Frank Keeney — a central figure in the West Virginia union movement and a primary organizer of the march on Mingo.

Thousands March

As Keeney and I drove along the route followed by the miners, he described what must have been a spectacle.

“You had of the front guard, like a vanguard there was up front,” Keeney said. “And then, you know, the line of miners that were marching were stretched out for numerous miles … By the time you get to Blair, there’s at least 10,000. There’s probably by the end of the battle, somewhere in the neighborhood of 15,000 involved.”

The battle of Blair Mountain became inevitable. Every time conflict could have been avoided, outside forces pushed the miners and the coal company back toward violence.

“This is Route 17 we’re on, by the way,” Keeney said. “And this was an actual road in 1921. It was a dirt trail. It wasn’t paved or anything.”

When Keeney and I get to the top, we are standing at the high ground where the mine guards and state troopers set up machine gun positions to attack the miners advancing up the steep slope of Blair Mountain.

“And the fighting continued on through Aug. 31 until Sept. 4, when federal troops arrived at Blair,” Keeney said.

“So there was the battle, the United States Army, federal troops come here, and from what I understand, the miners lay down their arms.”

“That’s correct,” Keeney said. “Of course, many of them were World War I veterans. And their beef was not with the federal government. Their beef was with the mine guards, with the state government. And so, they said they weren’t anti-American, even though they were often painted as being such.”

“Did the people who brought this, did they gain anything?”

“Yeah, the initial aftermath was it got worse instead of getting better,” Keeney said. “But in some ways, the threat of more industrial violence is going to be a catalyst to encourage reform that is going to be taken on by the federal government the following decade.

“We talk about veterans of wars and talk about them sacrificing themselves for the freedoms that we enjoy. Well, what about the eight-hour workday, the 40-hour work week, weekends, pensions, unemployment benefits, all of those things? They had to be fought for and they had to be bled for and in some cases died for.

“So, that’s why you want to remember what happened there. Americans need to understand the significance of labor history and unions in building America and turning America into a place where liberty can be enjoyed.”

This story originally aired in the Us & Them episode titled “Blair Mountain” on Sept. 9, 2021.