Most people don’t know about the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia in 1921, or how, more recently, it helped shape resource development in Alaska. But this forgotten history is vital, because as the poet Maya Angelou famously put it: “You can’t really know where you’re going until you know where you have been.”
The Battle of Blair Mountain unfolded 100 years ago in what’s been called the largest labor uprising – and the largest armed uprising – in U.S. history since the Civil War. Coal miners working underground in dangerous and horrific conditions sought to unionize, but they were met with violence, intimidation and firings by corporate bosses at every turn. The events culminated in an epic battle in August/September 1921, with private detectives and others working for the coal barons using machine guns, bombs dropped from planes and explosives to quell the rising tide of more than 10,000 coal miners determined to carve out a better life for their families.
In the short term, the mining bosses prevailed in the bloody melee. But in the bigger picture, the Battle of Blair Mountain exposed the appalling conditions in the coal industry, and paved the way for the United Mine Workers to obtain growing influence and success during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s an amazing story everyone should know, because it provided a springboard for workers’ rights in the face of corporate profiteering, and while there have been remarkable advances over the past 100 years, we’re still grappling with profit-at-any-cost corporations stomping on the rights of everyday Americans trying to make ends meet.
So how does Blair Mountain connect to resource development in Alaska?
In 2006 – with rising energy prices and a resurgence in coal markets – Inletkeeper spearheaded the Alaska Coal Campaign in response to more than a dozen coal mining, export and power plant proposals popping up across the state. Our keystone fight focused on protecting the salmon-rich Chuitna River watershed on the west side of Cook Inlet – and keeping more than a billion tons of coal in the ground to combat climate change.
As part of the multifaceted campaign Inletkepeeper and its partners employed, we sought to learn from others who lived through the ravages of the coal industry in the Lower 48. So we brought up a woman named Judy Bonds, who came from a long line of coal miners, and who had been fighting the devastation of coal strip mining and mountain top removal in and around her West Virginia “holler” for decades.
Judy had won the Nobel Prize of environmentalism – the Goldman Prize – for her fearless and tireless advocacy in the face of threats, abuse and community condemnation. But she was not your typical greenie. No. Judy was a hard-scrapple woman from a coal mining family that dated back to the Battle of Blair Mountain, and she spoke truth to power in a state where the coal industry dominated every level of political discourse. She once got punched hard in the face by a pro-coal supporter during a protest march and didn’t even flinch. That was Judy Bonds.
When Judy came to Alaska, she had one simple admonition: do not let big coal into your state. Never.
At the time, Alaska had (and still has) only one relatively small coal mine in Healy (Usibelli Coal Mine). But Judy warned us that if coal companies got their nose under the tent – especially with Alaska’s vast coal reserves – they would strip mine Alaska into a lunar landscape, and bring all the socioeconomic ills that have torn-apart coal communities in the Lower 48.
Judy’s words hit home with us and the hundreds of Alaskans who heard her speak. When she left Alaska, we had a renewed resolve fueled by the first-hand knowledge only a woman from West Virginia could impart.
In November 2010, Judy wrote us a letter. She doubled-down on her message: “Tell – NO WARN – your communities that the woman that came to talk a year or so ago is dying with cancer, along with many in her community. If they [the State of Alaska] allow more [coal] mining, that fate awaits their children and them.”
Judy died a few months later.
In the end, Inletkeeper and its partners stopped the Chuitna coal mine and more than a dozen other coal projects across the state. We protected countless miles of salmon streams from the ravages of coal strip mining, and we kept billions of tons of dirty coal in the ground.
And we did it because we listened to an incredible woman whose descendants fought the Battle of Blair Mountain.
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