It was a hot August day in 1921 that Sid Hatfield went to McDowell County West Virginia. He was to go on trial for blowing up a coal tipple. A good friend, Ed Chambers, and their wives went with them. As they slowly walked up the courthouse stairs, a group of Baldwin-Felts agents opened fire from the top of the stairs. Sid Hatfield was killed instantly by the volley that was fired. His friend’s bullet-riddled body rolled to the bottom of the stairs. An agent ran down the stairs and shot him once more in the back of the head.
Hatfield’s death enraged the striking miners and they began to flow out of the mountains. Miners from places like Little Coal River, Mingo County, Logan County and Lens Creek Mountain near Marmet in Kanawha County. A C&O train was commandeered, renamed the “Blue Steel Special and was sent to meet up with marchers at Danville in Boone County.
The first few shots were fired in the cool mountain morning of August 25. President Warren Harding considered sending in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers to quell the disturbance and send the miners back to work. Cooler heads prevailed and agreements were reached by both sides for the miners to return home.
The struggle wasn’t over though.
Logan County Sheriff – a union enemy — had expended a lot of resources in gathering together a private, volunteer army. He wasn’t going to be denied his chance for battle. His men were deliberately shooting union sympathizers in Sharples, West Virginia – just north of Blair Mountain. Families had been caught in the crossfire and this infuriated the miners, resulting in their turning around and heading back to Blair Mountain.
By August 29, the battle was in fever pitch. On orders from the famous General Billy Mitchell, Army bombers from Maryland were used for aerial surveillance which has proven to be a rare example of air power being used by the federal government against US citizens.
Sporadic gun battles continued for a week. Up to 150 deaths were reported and many hundreds more injured. Afraid he would lose a lot of skilled workers if the battle continued with the military, union leader Bill Blizzard sent word out for the miners to prepare to head for home. The miners, fearing jail and confiscation of their guns, found clever ways to hide rifles and hand guns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Collectors and researches are still finding weapons and ammunition in old trees and rock crevices.
In April 2008, Blair Mountain was nominated for the list of protected places on the National Register of Historic places. This decision, however, has been contested by the state of West Virginia, and this nomination is currently under review.
Memories and grudges are both still held in these mountains in West Virginia today. People still talk about their daddy or granddaddy who was shot and killed by the Army troops and killed in the struggle to protect their families and livelihood.
This is the environment that finds us walking into history.
On June 6, 2011 people from all over the world are gathering in Marmet WV to march to Blair Mountain. The marchers are hoping to achieve two goals.
One, encourage the State of West Virginia to finally recognize the importance of Blair Mountain and allow the nomination as an historical place to go forward. Second, Blair Mountain is under threat of falling to the mountain-top removal form of coal mining. The marchers are determined in their desire to keep this from happening. Will they succeed? Will there be violence?
Of course there’s no way to know the answer to the question. But the organizers of the march are preparing as though they fully expect violence.
Me? I’m going along to photographically document whatever happens. To use a phrase that has been popularized by the news media, I am to be “embedded” with the marchers. I’ll be hiking with them the entire distance from Marmet to Blair Mountain. Besides the usual hiking and camping gear, I’ll be carrying camera equipment to capture whatever happens to fall in front of my lens.
It’ll be an interesting week. And I’ll keep ya’ posted.