100 years ago, in August of 1921, coal company supporters and union miners met near Blair Mountain, West Virginia. Although the number of casualties has never been confirmed, the Battle of Blair Mountain has been called the “largest armed uprising since the Civil War.”
According to historical reports, several events led up to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Aside from decades of deplorable mining conditions enforced by repressive companies, low wages and harassment which stopped miners from organizing, the Matewan Massacre spurred miner support, leading to strikes and backlash against the coal companies.
Despite the coal company’s efforts to keep miners from forming a union, the United Mine Workers (UMW) group began to organize miners in Mingo County in the 1920s.
If found in a union, coal miners would be evicted from their company-owned homes by the company’s force of private detectives, the Baldwin-Felts. The Baldwin-Felts had arrived at Matewan in May of 1920 to do just this when they were met by Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman and Sid Hatfield, a pro-union sheriff. The two men had caught wind of the Baldwin-Felt’s intentions and planned to stop the group from evicting several miners and their families.
In a matter of minutes, a gunfight ensued, causing the death of seven detectives, Testerman and two miners.
Many believe the catalyst for the battle was on August 1, 1921, when Hatfield and his friend, Ed Chambers, an organizer with the UMW, were shot and killed by Baldwin-Felt detectives on the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse in Welch.
Prosecutors indicted three detectives — C.E. Lively, George “Buster” Pence and William Salters- for Hatfield and Chamber’s murder, but all three were found not guilty.
Hatfield’s death outraged miners, many of whom considered him a hero for his involvement in the Matewan Massacre. Led by UMW leaders, thousands of miners set out for Mingo County, where they planned to confront the local coal companies and free the area’s imprisoned union men.
In order to get to Mingo County, the group of miners had to pass through Logan County- a coal company fortress under the leadership of an anti-union sheriff named Don Chafin.
Chafin and his men vowed to not let any miners pass the Logan County line and constructed a 10-mile line of machine-gun nests and trenches at the base of Blair Mountain, which stood in the miners’ path.
Fighting began in the last few days of August.
For two days, the sides fought. Miners dodged the fire of machine guns and the fall of shrapnel and debris which Chafin had thrown out of planes flying overhead. The battle ended with the arrival of federal troops, which led most of the miners to give up their weapons by September 4, 1921. More than 1,000 exhausted miners surrendered to the army, which was twice their size. The rest of the miners were forced to flee and return home. Those who were caught were charged with treason and murder
While Blair Mountain was a defeat for the miners, it is considered to have lit the spark for the fight against American labor practices.
Over the weekend, with this being the 100th anniversary of the battle, several remembrance events will be held.
On Friday, September 3, the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine will host Blair Day. During the day, all tours will be given with added commentary of the significance of the mine wars and the Battle of Blair Mountain.
As an underground tram takes visitors through a ride of the dark passages of a vintage coal mine, guides, who are veteran miners, will provide firsthand accounts of the daily responsibilities and effort of past and present-day miners. Visitors will get a true representation of the early 20th-century coal camp life by visiting the period Coal Camp with restored buildings situated throughout the grounds.
In addition to miners’ homes, those on the tour will see the Coal Company House, Superintendent’s Home, Pemberton Coal Camp Church and the Helen Coal Camp School.
On Saturday, September 4, the City of Welch will also host several events.
The day will begin at noon on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse with a reenactment of the murders of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers.
The reenactment is free to the public and leads into the 1:30 p.m. showing of “Matewan,” a 1987 film written and directed by John Sayles. The movie will be shown at the Pocahantas Theatre in Welch.
The movie dramatizes the events of the Matewan Massacre and stars Chris Cooper, James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, Will Oldham, and David Strathairn.
Tickets are $5.
The remembrance events will conclude Saturday night with a performance of “Terror of the Tug” written by Jean Battlo. The performance is an outdoor drama based on the West Virginia coal mine wars and highlights the murder of Hatfield and Chambers.
During the performance, four storytellers will provide their unique viewpoints of what and how the events happened, leaving viewers to make their own conclusions about the event. Attendees will also learn about the hardship that the miners endured while working for the coal company before the union was established and gain insight into southern West Virginia’s coal mining heritage.
The show, which is approximately two hours long, will begin at 8 p.m. at the McArts Amphitheatre on Mt. View Road. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for children five to 12. Admission for children five and under is free.
Welch Mayor Harold McBride Sr. shared the importance of the city recognizing these historical events.
“It’s our heritage, to begin with, but we feel like it’s very important that we show that heritage and that we don’t forget that,” McBride said, adding that the reenactment, movie and live performances will be informational, as well as enjoyable.
“It’s important for Welch to show that our heritage is coal and what led up to how coal is mined and how the union and coal company managed to survive and work.”