Joyce Hinnefeld


Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Coal and the Battle of Blair Mountain

When I started working on Stranger Here Below many years ago, I never imagined that I’d get as worked up as I am today, about Big Coal. Sure, I have a references to “King Coal” decimating the homes and lives of people connected with my character Vista Jansen, but I’ll confess that I saw that as something you said about eastern Kentucky in the 1930s, when Vista decides to leave her home in Appalachia.

And then, shortly after Fred Ramey signed the book for publication in 2010, I started hearing and reading more about mountaintop removal coal mining, and the sinister things that are happening in Appalachia today. I’d like to say that all of us--except those nasty coal company people--are innocent. But of course it’s our hunger for power (to charge up our phones and computers and keep on blogging, for instance) that allows those companies to do what they do.

In the novel, there’s a lot of mystery surrounding a character named Daniel Burgett. He’s handsome, and different, and kind of secretive; he’s also a fervent supporter of unions like the United Mine Workers of America. One story that circulates about him, among his fellow students at Berea, is that he’s the grandson of a miner who was killed at the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. This was a ten-day battle in August and September, 1921, in which law enforcement fought with over 10,000 miners seeking the right to unionize. President Warren Harding declared martial law, bringing in the U.S. Army and Air Corps, who even dropped bombs. More than 100 people were killed on both sides.

In March 2009 the National Park Service added Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places. Less than a year later, though, the Park Service decided to de-list the site, claiming that some property owners were not included in the vote about whether or not to list Blair Mountain. Suddenly eight mysteriously missing letters appeared, from property owners who objected to the listing.

But two of those letters came from people who were actually dead (you couldn’t make this up if you tried), and others came from people who were apparently not actual property owners. It turns out, of course, that the coal industry wants to do surface mining on the site. And a listing on the National Register of Historic Sites makes that a little messier. You can read more about this at the Friends of Blair Mountain site and at the Charleston, WV Gazette’s Coal Tattoo blog.

This month the Sierra Club and allies filed a legal challenge to reverse the decision by the National Park Service to remove Blair Mountain from the National Registry of Historic Places. There’s more about this at the Sierra Club web site.

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