The marchers had just been refused lodging at a camp site in Boone County after the owner learned they were protesting mountaintop removal coal mining. One marcher said the owner said her husband is a coal miner and would be fired from his job if they allowed the marchers to stay there.
Not long after they finished their lunches, the marchers -- already nearly 400 strong -- were taken back to Marmet, where their 50-mile trek began, to stay the night and to avoid a severe storm brewing in the area. They planned to continue their march this morning at 7 a.m., going through Madison in Boone County and on toward Blair Mountain. The march in support of saving Blair Mountain from surface mining is scheduled to end at Blair Mountain in Logan County on Friday and marchers will hold a rally on Saturday that will include country music singers Kathy Mattea and Emmy Lou Harris. Mattea, a West Virginia native, has been an outspoken opponent of strip mining.
Blair Mountain in Logan County near Sharples and just a few miles outside the city of Logan is the site of one of the largest labor uprising in U.S. history that happened in 1921 and was the cause of at least 16 deaths. Environmentalists want to save the mountain from surface mining, while the coal companies who own much of the land -- Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources -- want to strip mine the property. The battle to save or strip Blair Mountain has been raging for years and the battlesite was briefly put on the National Register of Historic Places, but was taken off when it was discovered that a majority of land owners wanting the certification was not achieved.
Larry Gibson, a Cabin Creek resident and organizer of the march, said the march that retraces the steps of miners who fought in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 is about stopping strip mining and saving Blair Mountain.
"Every day we're picking up people and by Friday we should have at least 500 people," Gibson said. "We've got a little over 400 now. By Saturday, we are looking to have over 1,000 people at the rally. We've got people flying into the airport every day. The purpose of the march and rally is to secure and put into place Blair Mountain and try to stop mountaintop removal and to try to stop the destruction of Blair Mountain itself. Right now, they're getting ready to destroy it. What we're doing is making a statement.
"The most precious piece of ground we've had in our history, the largest insurrection since the Civil War and we're going to put it on the chopping block? It doesn't make any sense. We're going on this march to ensure Blair Mountain is not destroyed."
Dr. Harvard Ayers, who is professor emeritus of archeology at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., was marching with the group. He said Blair Mountain needs to be preserved because of the historical artifacts that remain in the ground on the battleground site.
"I spent the whole summer of 2006 doing the archeology up there," Ayers said. "I went with Kenny King, who knows where a lot of the sites are and we found some he didn't know about. I had one archeology student with me. There were three of us and we probably spent 25-30 days in the field and twice that back in the lab to see just how much is left of the evidence of the battle. A lot of the rumors had that the timbering and the gas roads and other development had pretty much stirred everything around and destroyed it."
Ayers said there are a lot of artifacts remaining on the battleground site that needs to be preserved for history.
"There's a whole lot left. In fact, the site has as much integrity as any site I've ever been involved with," Ayers said. "In 1921, a guy with a pistol up there with the defenders, the coal operators, and up come the miners and he fires, he's standing one place and fires five shots. We found in a (three-feet) circle, all five of those shell casings and they were all about two or three or four inches down below the surface, which has been caused by leaves going to the forest floor and forming soil over the 90 years. To find those things within a three-feet circle is an indication that they have not been significantly moved around. If they had been moved around by forces of gravity or other things, they'd be scattered. But, they were pretty much where they fell on that day and that's what's important to archeologists."
Ayers said his archeology team found about 1,100 shell casings and about 35 spent bullets that had lodged in trees or other areas. He said 27 of those spent bullets were found at a new battle site about a mile north of Crooked Creek Gap where a breakthrough had happened for the miners.
"In order for there to be spent bullets there, it has to be a hot firefight. It had to be close -- almost hand-to-hand -- for people to get those bullets up there," Ayers said. "There was something really going on there that the history books haven't recorded."
Ayers said he didn't get paid to do the archeology on the site. He said he actually spent his own money to travel and stay in West Virginia in 2006.
"There are so many secrets still to be found of the Battle of Blair Mountain that we ought to do a whole lot more archeology to find out those secrets,"
Ayers said. "The only way we really have the time to do it is if we have years and years and years to do the research and carefully check everything out. I think we'd find some amazing things."
March organizer Chuch Keeney, a Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College professor, said the event is being held primarily to preserve Blair Mountain.
He said he doesn't ever see a compromise that can be reached on Blair Mountain between the coal companies and environmentalists.
"This specific march is about not letting them strip mine Blair Mountain, because it is so important to our local history and to national history," Keeney said. "(The coal companies) can mine all of the land under Blair Mountain. Underground mining creates twice as many jobs as surface mining. The biggest thing that those who oppose us are saying is that we are trying to destroy jobs, but the fact of the matter is if they save Blair Mountain and underground mine it, it creates twice as many jobs, so that's a bad argument."
Keeney said the town of Blair has been supportive of the environmentalists' efforts to save the battleground site. He said, though, that the marchers may meet some opposition along the way to the site. As marchers ate lunch, people drove by in vehicles yelling. One person drove by in a car blowing its horn and sticking his middle finger up at the group. West Virginia State Police troopers sat nearby keeping watch so that the march didn't turn ugly.
"The town of Blair is incredibly supportive," Keeney said. "We will be marching through Madison and marching through Danville and we may meet with some unpleasantries there, but we are prepared for that. We're not going to respond in kind. People may choose to be ugly and behave ugly to us, but we're not going to respond with that. That's not what we're about. We're not going to chain ourselves to any trees or anything like that. We're very organized and coordinated to make sure that that kind of behavior is not tolerated among us."