Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Saving Blair Mountain

On Saturday I sat for awhile on a roadside guard rail with a young coal miner in Blair, West Virginia. We watched a rally of people who'd come deep into coal country to try to save Blair Mountain. The miner had wandered over with some neighbors who staged a small counter-protest; they'd left, but he stayed on to catch some of the rally.

“I can see it both ways,” he said once his neighbors had gone. On one hand he understood the value of a job in the coal industry. When he'd switched from being an X-ray tech in a local hospital to a roof-bolter – one of the most dangerous mining jobs – in a nearby underground mine, his salary had doubled, from $45,000 to $90,000. And cousins who'd moved away to find work in other states returned to the area when new coal jobs became available.

At the same time, he admitted, “I don't really want to see it torn down,” and he gestured up at Blair Mountain, above us to our left. More than one person has called it “the most important site in America that you've never heard of,” the place where perhaps 10,000 union coal miners came under machine-gun fire and even aerial bombardment in 1921 as they fought against a mercenery army hired to preserve a feudal system run by coal companies. The miner pointed to the ridgeline above us to our right. Beyond that line of trees, he said, “there's nothing there,” just a rocky waste left by mountaintop removal.

Just as the miner struggled with that balance, the rally in front of us had its own uneasy tensions. I'd originally been attracted to filming the event because Blair Mountain brought together labor, environmentalists, and historic preservationists. But their alliance was sometimes a tenuous one. Some environmentalists boycotted the event because it focused too much on saving one mountain. Some unions didn't want to be associated with the march because it could be seen as anti-coal – and coal is jobs, irreplaceable jobs in that part of Appalachia. And the historic preservationists would admit they don't like any kind of surface mining, but they know from experience they have to work intelligently with property owners if they want to get anything done.

Despite those conflicts, hundreds of people marched over five days, and more than a thousand took a hot, steep hike up the mountain at the end of the rally, in a plea to save Blair Mountain, a piece of American history and Appalachian beauty that no one really wanted to see destroyed.

Saving Blair Mountain from Jay Mallin on Vimeo.