Frank Keeney was born March 15, 1882 on Cabin Creek in Kanawha County, WV. He went into the mines as a boy and emerged as a rank-and-file leader during the Paint Creek/Cabin Creek Strike of 1912-1913 when he led the opposition to efforts by the West Virginia Governor Henry Hatfield who was trying end the strike with a compromise settlement.
Within three months of becoming president of UMW District 17, Keeney attracted 2000 new members, organized 12 new locals and led District 17 to the largest membership in its history. In 1919, he shared his plan of organizing the remainder of southern West Virginia. He targeted Logan and Mingo counties, two of the most vehemenent hot beds of anti-unionism in the state.
As determined as Keeney was in unionizing the mines, the mine operators were equally determined to keep the union out. Because of these two opposing goals, Keeney’s tenure as district president was marked by bitter and bloody warfare which became known as the West Virginia Mine Wars.
One of the more infamous events during his tenure was The Battle for Blair Mountain.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones spoke at a rally of miners on August 7, 1921. She called on the miners to NOT march on Logan and Mingo counties. Fearing a bloodbath between the lightly armed union forces and the more heavily armed deputies from Logan County, many listeners accused her of having lost her nerve.
Feeling though that they had been lied to again by West Virginia’s Governor Morgan, armed minors began gathering at Lens Creek Mountain near Marmet in Kanawha County on August 20. By August 24th, 13,000 miners had gathered and began marching towards Logan County.
Impatient to get to the fighting and not wanting to be left out, some miners near St Albans, West Virginia commandeered a C&O freight train and renamed it the “Blue Steel Special”. While they moved on the train to meet up with the advance column of marchers at Danville in Boone County, the anti-union Sheriff of Logan County – Don Chafin – began to set up defenses on Blair Mountain. With the financial backing of the Logan County Coal Operators Association, Chafin created the nation’s largest private armed force consisting of nearly 2,000 men.
The early skirmishes in the battle occurred on the morning of August 25 with the majority of the miners still 15 miles away. The following day, August 26, President Warren Harding, threatened to send in federal troops and Army Martin MB-1 bombers. After a long and loud meeting in the Boone County town of Madison, agreements were reached which convinced the miners to return home. The struggle though was not over. After spending many days and much money in assembling his private army, Chafin was not going to be denied his fight to end union attempts at organizing Logan County coal mines.
Within hours of the Madison agreement, reports started coming in that Chafin’s men were deliberately shooting union sympathizers in the town of Sharples which lay just north of Blair Mountain. Angered, the miners ignored the Madison agreement and started back towards Blair Mountain with many miners traveling in stolen and commandeered trains.
By August 29, the battlefield was fully engaged. While Chafin’s men were heavily outnumbered, they had the advantage of the higher ground and were better armed. Private planes were hired to drop homemade bombs on the miners and a combination of gas and explosive bombs left over from the fighting in World War I were dropped in several locations near Jeffery, Sharples and Blair. The famous General Billy Mitchell gave orders to Army bombers from Maryland which were used for aerial surveillance.
Sporadic gun battles continued for a week and saw the miners nearly break through to the town of Logan. 30 deaths were reported by Chafin’s side and between 50 and 100 miners were killed with many hundreds more injured.
With the arrival of federal troops on September 2, union leader Bill Blizzard passed the word for the miners to start heading home. Fearing jail and confiscation of their guns, the miners hid their rifles and handguns in the woods before leaving Logan County. Guns and ammunition which are still being found today by collectors and researchers.
Following the fight, 985 miners were indicted for murder, conspiracy to commit murder, accessory to murder and treason against the State of West Virginia. While many were acquitted by sympathetic juries, many were also put in prison for a number of years before being paroled in 1925.
The immediate result of the battle was a victory for coal mine owners. UMW membership dropped from over 50,000 members to less than 10,000 over the next several years. It wasn’t until 1935 that the UMW fully organized in southern West Virginia.
Death and destruction continued in the mountains of West Virginia.
Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to The Huffington Postand OpEdNews as well as a weekly guest on national radio. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Logan County West Virginia, site of The March on Blair Mountain.
Nelson’s book, OccupyDC: As I See It has been called, “The most thorough photographic documentation of the Occupy Movement in Washington DC”.
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