I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
The working conditions for West Virginian coal miners in the 1920s were atrocious. There was the ever-present danger of explosions or tunnel collapses that mine owners did little to improve, as well as a system of wage bondage that held workers captive.
Exploitation of Coal Miners
The West Virginia State Archives notes that, “Miners worked in company mines with company tools and equipment, which they were required to lease. The rent for company housing and cost of items from the company store were deducted from their pay. The stores themselves charged over-inflated prices, since there was no alternative for purchasing goods.” In addition, the mine owners developed a number of creative ways of cheating miners out of some of their pay.
Coal mining in the state was a dangerous occupation. According to the state archive, West Virginia had the country’s highest mine death rate from 1890 to 1912. It was the site of the worst mine disaster in U.S. history when 361 miners were killed in an explosion at a mine in Monongah, Marion County; that was in 1907.
The archive comments that, “One historian has suggested that during World War I, a U.S. soldier had a better statistical chance of surviving in battle than did a West Virginian working in the coal mines.”
Mine Union Organization
Given the terrible conditions under which they laboured it’s not surprising the coal miners eagerly embraced the urging of the legendary John L. Lewis to join the United Mine Workers.
But, the campaign to sign up miners was met by the owners with intimidation and violence. The owners hired men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to discourage union activity. As Chris Hedges reports in his 2012 book Days of Destruction, Day of Revolt, thousands of miners who tried to organize fellow workers were fired and evicted from their houses and forced to live in tent encampments. There were “assassinations of union leaders and their supporters.”
In February 1912 an armoured train, called the Bull Moose Special, was driven through a striker’s camp in Holly Creek, West Virginia. The West Virginia Encyclopedia reports that “two blasts from the engine’s whistle apparently signalled the beginning of machine gun and rifle fire from the Bull Moose Special into the tents of sleeping miners and their families. Several people were wounded, but only one striker, Cesco Estep, was killed.”
Quin Morton, one of the mine owners who organized the attack apparently felt not enough damage had been done and, says the state archives, “supposedly wanted to ‘go back and give them another round.’ ” He was talked out of it.
Murder Starts Insurrection
The sheriff of the town of Matewan in southern West Virginia was 27-year-old Sid Hatfield. Before becoming sheriff he had worked in coal mines and was sympathetic to the miners’ cause.
In May 1920, the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency people arrived in town to evict union sympathizers. Sheriff Hatfield tried to stop them and a gun battle followed that left 10 people dead. When the mine owners failed to get Hatfield convicted of murder they trumped up another charge against him.
On August 1, 1921, Sheriff Hatfield and his deputy Ed Chambers and their young wives arrived at the courthouse in Welch, West Virginia to answer to a charge that he had dynamited a mine tip. Chris Hedges writes that the sheriff and his deputy “were assassinated by a group of Baldwin-Felts agents standing at the top of the steps. The killings triggered the armed rebellion.”
None of the killers was convicted of murder, pleading they acted in self-defence.
A Melodramatic Video of Sid Hatfield’s Showdown, with Hatfield Playing Himself.
The Battle of Blair Mountain
With the help of the union, the miners started to arm themselves and the owners hired guards and supplied them with weapons.
Gathering in the thousands (various accounts put the number at between 7,000 and 15,000) the miners marched on Logan County to try to organize the non-unionized workers. On August 29, 1921, they met up with the Sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin, and his deputies and mine guards, who had set up defensive positions on Logan Mountain.
Exchanges of gunfire began and continued for five days. The coal operators brought in private planes to drop homemade bombs on the miner’s positions. On September 2, federal troops arrived and the miners realized that if they carried on with the fight the casualty list would be huge, so they pulled out.
As it was, about 100 miners were killed in the battle and on the owners’ side there were about 30 dead. More than a thousand miners faced charges of being party to a rebellion, with murder and treason thrown in for good measure. Many miners were given lengthy prison terms.
Aftermath of the Battle of Blair Mountain
It was a complete victory for the mine owners. As Desmond Kilkeary in the Glendale College magazine Chaparral notes, “In West Virginia, union membership tumbled from 50,000 to a few hundred. Nationally, the United Mine Workers membership declined from 600,000 to fewer than 100,000. From 1920 to 1923 the American Federation of Labor lost two million workers or nearly 25 percent of its total membership.”
And Blair Mountain is the site of new conflict today. Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones magazine writes that a face-off features “a new generation of activists and several modern-day coal companies intent on bulldozing and blasting away at a historical site to access the veins of coal beneath.”
In March 2009, campaigners managed to get Blair Mountain listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The state of West Virginia appealed and the designation was removed a few months later. In 2016, the de-listing was vacated by U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton. The National Register of Historic Places has since re-listed the site.
Several coal companies are blasting and scraping away rock very close to the mountain. Clearly, they would like to extend their activities to include Blair Mountain.
Coal Miners Still in Fights with Owners
Black lung disease is a common affliction among coal miners. It comes from inhaling coal dust that causes the lungs to cease functioning properly and is fatal. Some mine owners have fought to deny compensation to former employees who are battling the disease.
Miners with Deadly Black Lung Disease Battle Coal Companies for Compensation.
In a class action lawsuit, the families of people suffering from black lung (pneumoconiosis) sued Dr. Wheeler and his associates for falsely testifying their loved ones did not have the disease. The Yale Journal on Regulation summarized testimony in which the doctors said they were aware of International Labour Organization (ILO) rules about interpreting black lung X-rays.
The journal continued “Despite that legal obligation, they intentionally disregarded the ILO classification system in interpreting coal miners’ radiographs so as to falsely attribute positive readings to causes other than pneumoconiosis.
“Wheeler ultimately admitted purposefully disregarding his obligation to apply the ILO classification system, asserting that he did not ‘care about the law,’ nor think coal miners deserved benefits just ‘because [they had] masses and nodules.’ ”
The court found in favour of the plaintiffs, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. In October 2018, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Dr. Wheeler was protected by witness litigation privilege. This gives immunity from prosecution to expert witnesses who give sworn testimony.
According to Chris Hedges, the old cozy relationship between mine owners and government officials remains largely untouched today.
- The current Governor of West Virginia is Jim Justice, a billionaire who made his money in the coal business. Forbes Magazine calls him a “deadbeat” for his consistent practice of not paying his suppliers until he receives a court order to do so. Forbes Magazine also reports that “By federal law, when a surface mine closes, the operator has to restore the landscape. Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy estimates that Justice’s coal companies face $200 million in reclamation liabilities.”
- In April 2019, National Public Radio reported that Governor Jim Justice’s family owed more than $4 million in unpaid fines over safety violations.
- Jim Justice was elected as a Democrat and then switched to being a Republican, prompting President Donald Trump to say “Having Big Jim as a Republican is such an honor.”
- Donald Leon Blankenship was the Chief Executive Officer of the big coal mining company Massey Energy. In December 2015, he was found guilty of willfully violating mine health and safety regulations in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine, West Virginia, explosion. The disaster kill 29 miners. Blankenship was given a one-year prison sentence and fined $250,000.
- West Virginia Senate Bill 582, introduced in 2017, will curb health and safety regulations in the state’s coal mines.
- “West Virginia’s Mine Wars.” West Virginia State Archives, undated.
- “Days of Destruction, Day of Revolt.” Chris Hedges, Nation Books, June 2012.
- “The Bull Moose Special.” Fred A. Barkey, West Virginia Encyclopedia, undated.
- “The Battle of Blair Mountain.” Desmond Kilkeary, Chaparral, Glendale Community College, California, April 2005.
- “The Battle of Blair Mountain, Round Two.” Kate Sheppard, Mother Jones, November 12, 2010.
- “The Battle of Blair Mountain Is Still Being Waged.” Charles B. Keeney, Ph.D., The Cultural Landscape Foundation, February 26, 2018.
- “The Deadbeat Billionaire: The Inside Story of How West Virginia Governor Jim Justice Ducks Taxes and Slow-Pays His Bills.” Christopher Helman, Forbes, April 9, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 30, 2019:
That is outrageous, maybe he was not reported to the medical board. It makes me angry to hear he is practicing, and at Johns Hopkins!
Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on November 29, 2019:
Kari. As far as I can tell he is still practicing and still teaching radiology at Johns Hopkins. It's beyond my understanding how these things can happen.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on November 29, 2019:
Wow! I find the part about Dr. Wheeler disgusting. I hope someone contacted the WV Board of Medicine. That constitutes unprofessional behavior I think. And in 2018 no less!