Coal Companies Seek to Destroy Historic Blair Mountain Battleground

Matt Orfalea
6 min readOct 19, 2017

After this October the National Park Service will decide whether or not to let coal companies blast mine Blair Mountain out of existence. They have allowed for public comments only until Oct 26! Please email and tell them to protect Blair Mt!

The following is an open letter to the Associate Director of Cultural Resources at the National Park Service from Professor Chuck Keeney.

Where I live, lies, intimidation, and corruption are a part of the status quo, and it appears as though, yet again, coal companies may be getting away with using their high dollar lawyers and underhanded, dishonest tactics to destroy an important part of American, Appalachian, and labor history.

Dear Stephanie Toothman,

I am a history professor who teaches in Logan County, West Virginia, a member of Friends of Blair Mountain (FOBM), and the great-grandson of Frank Keeney, a leading figure in the West Virginia Mine Wars. Below are my comments relating to your forthcoming decision on the Blair Mountain Battlefield:

On March 30, 2009, 1,669 acres of the Blair Mountain Battlefield was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. This listing was met with significant opposition from the coal industry. Because the historical significance of this battlefield is tied to labor history and the United Mine Workers of America, the coal industry has worked to stifle the preservation of this acreage and has taken active steps to erase this history from the American popular consciousness. In 2009, immediately after the listing of the battlefield, Don Blankenship, then CEO of Massey Energy, threatened to sue each individual member of the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) if they did not delist the battlefield. In April 2009, Jackson & Kelly, Inc. representing the coal industry, submitted a different landowner list than the one used in the nomination process to SHPO. Susan Pierce, the director of SHPO, then forwarded the Jackson & Kelly list to Carol Shull, then acting Keeper. Inexplicably, Carol Shull accepted the second landowner list, even though the first list had already been approved, and the Blair Mountain Battlefield was delisted on December 30, 2009.

On April 11, 2016, United States District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton vacated the 2009 decision of the Keeper of the National Register to delist the Blair Mountain Battlefield from the National Register (Sierra Club, v. Ken Salazar Civil Action №10–1513). Judge Walton ruled that the decision to delist the battlefield was both, “arbitrary and capricious” and violated Federal Law. On July 26, 2016 Robert J. Lundman, representing the U.S. Department of Interior voluntarily dropped their appeal of Judge Walton’s decision (USCA Case #16–5168 Document #1626953). It should be noted that Judge Walton vacated the December 30, 2009 delisting of the battlefield and did not vacate the March 30, 2009 listing of the battlefield.

The listing or delisting of the battlefield is paramount to its future preservation in the state of West Virginia. Section 22–3–22 of the Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act (WV Code 22–3) sub-section (d) states:

After the third day of August, one thousand nine hundred seventy-seven, and subject to valid existing rights, no surface-mining operation, except those which existed on that date, shall be permitted:”

The section then lists five reasons for the prohibition of surface mining. Reason number two states:

(2) “Which will adversely affect any publicly owned park or places included in the national register of historic sites…”

Therefore surface mining, which is what the coal industry seeks to do to the battlefield, is illegal in West Virginia on a place listed on the National Register.

A number of developments have occurred in the nearly eight years since the “arbitrary and capricious” delisting of the battlefield:

  • Research has indicated that at least two objectors on the Jackson & Kelly list (the one accepted by Carol Shull) were deceased, one for over twenty years. When contacted about the deceased, Susan Pierce of WV SHPO stated, “We cannot confirm or deny that there are no deceased on the SPHO list dated May 21, 2009.”[i]
  • Because of the delisting, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection will not enforce the National Historic Preservation Act. The battlefield’s eligibility status is of no consequence to state agencies.
  • As a result, Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources have damaged areas of the Blair Mountain Battlefield. Arch Coal has crossed over into the 1,669 acres on their Bumbo №2 Surface Mine and Alpha Natural Resources has damaged areas of the battlefield on their Camp Branch Surface Mine.
  • FOBM has documented specific defensive entrenchments and earthworks that were bulldozed and clear cut on the Camp Branch Permit. These are areas which would have been under protection of the National Historic Preservation Act had it not been for the “arbitrary and capricious” delisting of the battlefield. Because of the delisting, portions of the battlefield, and of our own history, have been permanently destroyed.
  • FOBM attempted to hold the coal companies accountable for these surface disturbances and took our case to the West Virginia Surface Mine Board on December 9, 2013 and on September 8, 2014. While the Surface Mine Board did rule that further archeological surveys are necessary to determine areas of significance before mining should occur, these disturbances were not deemed a violation of law. The delisting ensured that no one will be held accountable for the deliberate destruction of our cultural heritage.
  • Because of our opposition to the destruction of this battlefield, members of FOBM, including myself, have endured death threats, been threatened with guns, have had their mail opened, had their computers hacked, been followed by unmarked, black SUVs, and have faced additional professional and personal obstacles. No one should have their personal safety and professional careers threatened and their personal privacy violated for wanting to preserve cultural heritage. Yet, this is exactly what has happened to those who support the preservation of this battlefield. The real tragedy is that none of these threats and invasions of privacy would have occurred had the battlefield remained on the National Register.

Because my great-grandfather, Charles Frank Keeney, was a leading figure in the events surrounding the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, this history is deeply personal to me as an individual and a scholar. As a native of Southern West Virginia and as someone who works in Logan County — where the battle occurred — I have seen firsthand the level of political corruption prevalent in the coalfields. It is no surprise that deceased people are on the coal companies’ landowner list. Indeed, a study in neighboring Mingo County once revealed that over 2,000 deceased individuals were regularly voting.[ii] In Southern West Virginia, nearly 100 politicians have been either indicted or convicted of voter fraud, corruption, money embezzlement, and other political crimes since the 1990s.[iii] Regarding the Blair Battlefield, several small individual landowners whose property overlap onto the 1,669 acres have confessed to members of FOBM that executives from Natural Resource Partners and Arch Coal have visited their homes and tried to convince/intimidate them into objecting to the listing of the battlefield.

The point is that where I live, lies, intimidation, and corruption are a part of the status quo, and it appears as though, yet again, coal companies may be getting away with using their high dollar lawyers and underhanded, dishonest tactics to destroy an important part of American, Appalachian, and labor history. The history of corruption in this region and the stakes involved give me reason for serious concern. It is my sincere hope that you, Ms. Toothman, as the current Keeper of the National Register, will make a better decision than the “arbitrary and capricious” one made by your predecessor.


Dr. Charles B. Keeney III

[i] For news coverage of the delisting, see, Jeff Biggers, “Mountaintop Removal Mayhem: Blair Mtn Scandal (Feds See Dead People), Coal Profits Soar, EPA Disses Scientists,” Huffington Post, May 25, 2011,

[ii] Huey Perry, They’ll Cut off Your Project (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2011)

[iii] Allan H. Loughry II, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia (Parsons: McClain Printing Company, 2006)

Interview with “Mine Wars” historian, Professor Chuck Keeney