Shout from the Mountaintop

appalachia rising
Nearly 800 People Hiked Up Blair Mountain In West Virginia to Stop Coal Companies From Destroying It
When most of the campsites that had been arranged for the 200-300 participants on the five-day March on Blair Mountain in West Virginia fell through, a monumental organizing effort became a lot more complicated. Still, to this observer, the whole thing came off incredibly smoothly, as marchers were shuttled back to the starting point in Marmet for four nights to sleep in an empty warehouse with Internet access (but no indoor plumbing) after walking all day in record-breaking heat and humidity. The mostly young people participating seemed to love every minute of it.

The 50-mile march on June 11 followed the route thousands of miners took (estimates range from 7,000 to twice that) in 1921 to demand union recognition from coal company bosses. Miners were incensed after a number of killings had taken place and determined to make their stand against company security men and county sheriffs allied with the coal barons. It was the largest armed labor confrontation in U.S. history, and ended after the U.S. Army was called in. But who’s ever heard of it? Even school children in West Virginia grow up ignorant to their own history.

The march and related rally at the foot of Blair Mountain were organized by Friends of Blair Mountain and Appalachia Rising. The former seeks to preserve the Blair Mountain battlefield – currently threatened by mountaintop removal coal mining – as a national historic monument; the latter calls for an end to all mountaintop removal mining throughout Appalachia. Two other goals were promoting labor rights and sustainable jobs in the region.

Mountains Worth Marching For

Seeing a mountaintop removal site in person was a devastating experience. (Click on for aerial views.) It looks like a moonscape, and active sites have 20-story tall draglines ripping off huge chunks of Appalachian ridges—home to more biodiversity than anywhere in the world outside tropical forests—and just dumping the debris into the valleys, often covering headwater streams. So far 500 mountains have been reduced by hundreds of feet and leveled off, and 2,000 miles of streams have been buried. This process has created huge air and water pollution problems for the local residents and has destroyed a number of small towns, forcing residents whose families have lived there for many generations to move elsewhere.

I tagged along on a march in the southern coal fields two years ago, and the response was much more positive this time, where toots of support and thumbs up far outweighed long blasts of derision or a middle finger waved while shouting, “Go home, tree huggers!” (For some reason, supporters of mountaintop removal think “tree hugger” is the worst epithet they can throw at opponents of the process, and we saw several signs to that effect. Someone on the march also proudly displayed a sign claiming the appellation as her own.)

One of my favorite moments came when three local teenage boys perched on a retaining wall along the march route slapped hands with every single marcher who walked by. One of them, Jacob Smutko, said he lives a mile from Blair Mountain and wanted to see it preserved. “I don’t like mountaintop removal. I’d rather keep the mountains the way they are and not have flat mountaintops,” he said. ”And I’d rather whenever I have kids for them to see the mountains for the beauty they are.”

Fifty organizers were divided into several committees, including logistics, security/peacekeepers, media, legal observers and more. They contacted every household along the march route to apprise residents of the goals of the action and seek support. When they spoke to Mary Ann Miles, she told them the miners on the original march had stopped to rest at her family’s homestead and she invited this year’s marchers to have lunch in her back yard. At every long lunch stop, marcher-musicians pulled out banjos, guitars and mandolins to inspire folks to complete the day’s walk.

Mountain High

Those kinds of interactions more than made up for the pressure brought to bear by coal interests that resulted in the cancellation of camping arrangements. Another highlight was when the mayor of Madison – which bills itself as “the gateway to the coal fields,” and where organizers were expecting possible trouble – offered to refill the water containers that accompanied the march on a flatbed truck. Getting a chance to cool off in the Little Coal River when the temperature hit 102 degrees was another high point.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. addressed the rally on Saturday and explained that ever since his uncle John F. Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election with the crucial support of West Virginia voters, his family has spent a lot of time in the state. He said the fight to end mountaintop removal is also a fight for American democracy, in which people with very little power – those impacted by the practice – are working to wrest absolute power over their lives from the corporations that are raping the land and sending the profits out of state.

After the rally, almost 800 people hiked up the mountain. At a certain point, 150 broke off to reach the battlefield site, on private coal company property, risking arrest. Along the way we spied an MTR site through the trees, and I almost stepped on a golden salamander in the mud along the trail. Eventually, mine security called in the sheriff, who told the marchers they’d be arrested if they didn’t leave immediately, so they headed back down, shouting “Save Blair Mountain!” and singing old union songs as they descended.