Category Archives: History

A Lesson from the Worst Mining Disaster in U.S. History

Many West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome

By Michael M. Barrick 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was 110 years ago today that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred in the small mining town of Monongah in northern West Virginia.

On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.

The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.

There is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, ‘a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.’

Such human tragedy, unfortunately, has left many lessons unlearned. In fact, it suggests that a vast majority of West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome.

That was made abundantly clear yesterday with the report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that “Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has officially filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.” Yes, that’s the same Don Blankenship that got by with murder, as I wrote here about the 29 coal miners that died in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster on April 5, 2010. He is out of prison from his paltry one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.

The timing of his filing is beyond ironic; it is downright contemptible.

Just as miners were changing shifts that early spring afternoon in 2010 at the UBB coal mine, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.

Clearly, since technology has improved to the point that major mining disasters simply need not happen, the problem is not with the science of deep mining; it is with the culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.

West Virginians and the Stockholm Syndrome

Unfortunately, it is just not industrialist and politicians who are to blame; so too are many West Virginians. They simply vote against their own interests. It would not surprise me if Blankenship wins the Republican primary and defeats the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin III. Regardless of how the campaign plays out, there is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This notion was recently shared with me by a very frustrated mayor in a small West Virginia town long-ago abandoned by the coal companies, leaving behind a dying community and destroyed landscape in a once-beautiful valley carved out by numerous rivers. One might take issue with the mayor’s claim, which is based on his disgust with the overwhelming support that West Virginia voters gave President Trump and Governor Jim Justice, who this past summer switched to the Republican Party after being elected as a Democrat last year. Justice is also the state’s only billionaire.

What is not debatable, however, is the deadly history of the coal industry in West Virginia. That Blankenship has the audacity to file for office, exactly 110 years after the Monongah tragedy, suggests that West Virginia is full of people essentially saying, “Abuse me. Please.”

What happened at Upper Big Branch

This was the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.

In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.” 

Monongah

At Monongah, both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).

Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment.

Monongah headline

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116). 

Blaming the Victims

Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “… he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).

Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (McAteer 159) 

Tragedy upon Tragedy

There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).

It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (McAteer 131).

Monogah-Mining-Disaster-1907-sign-CREDIT-Einhorn-Press-DOT-com

Photo credit: Einhorn Press

Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (McAteer 143). 

An Unholy Alliance

Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.

Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).

Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).

So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued – and does to this day. For proof, we need look no further than the UBB disaster. 

We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 110 years ago, and upon those of Upper Big Branch, Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Blair Mountain, and countless other communities since, we must conclude that we have not.

This should give us pause. The West Virginia state motto is Montani Semper Liberi – “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Though they may think they are, they are mistaken. In reality, my friend the mayor is right. The proud people of the Mountain State are not free; rather, as the Stockholm Syndrome illustrates, they “identify closely” with their crony capitalist captors and their demands.

WV State seal.png

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017. Michael M. Barrick is a native of Clarksburg, W.Va. He has lived also in Weston and Alum Bridge. He presently writes from his home in Western North Carolina, but continues to visit and work in his home state. 

Works Cited
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).

Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).

The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).

 

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Enough with the Destruction

‘The Resistance’ can count me out if all it seeks is destruction

By Michael M. Barrick

I am an old hippie who has no use for the ways of the established order. Ask the CEO of any corporation or the principal of any school for which I’ve worked. Or the pastor of any church I’ve attended. Most “order” is based on outdated, controlling systems designed to destroy creativity, and hence freedom. That leads to injustice.

I was raised to recognize and oppose injustice. I was also taught to do it peacefully. I was also taught there were great costs to standing against “The Establishment.” I learned that mostly the hard way.

Anarchy alice-donovan-rouse-195453

I still oppose “The Establishment” even though my generation is the establishment. I am with the disaffected and dissatisfied. I am not satisfied with the direction of our nation. I believe “Citizens United” has led us down the path of crony capitalism even worse than the Robber Barron era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In short, the inordinate control that corporations exert over our personal lives and political systems as a result of that Supreme Court decision have so polluted our national discourse that this outcome – violent resistance – was inevitable.

It is still unacceptable though. “The Resistance” must reject anarchy. Too many protesters are leaderless with no clear purpose short of destruction. If they wish to improve how our nation cares for the poor, vulnerable and the environment (I think that’s what they want other than Donald Trump’s head), they need leadership. Now.

That would – should – come from progressive clergy and politicians. The anarchists have legitimate complaints. There is truth to the saying, “If you want peace, work for justice.” There is plenty of injustice today. No ordinary American would ever enjoy the bailout received by Wall Street. Police departments do not need to be militarized. Energy companies such as Dominion and Duke should not be allowed to destroy the environment and seize private property through eminent domain to build fracking infrastructure. The War on Drugs is a complete failure, leading to the unjust imprisonment of tens of thousands of people, mostly minorities. We are spending more on the military than ever before even though we can’t muster the will to provide health coverage for all Americans.

So, one can understand the anger.

Violence, however, is not the answer.

To appreciate that, one needs a sense of history. There is talk on street corners no matter where I go that people say they’ve never seen our country in such a mess. I have. It was 1968.

The Vietnam War was at its peak, with thousands of young Americans subjected to an unjust draft. It was called the Selective Service System and it was very selective. If you were in college or could get a deferment because daddy had connections, you weren’t selected. So, eventually, the working class youth had enough of it and started burning draft cards, fleeing to Canada and even occupying buildings. Yes, there was some violence, especially at the Democratic National Convention, but that was largely precipitated by Chicago’s ruthless police.

Also in 1968, blacks, a century after the completion of the Civil War, were still having to fight for economic justice and attempts by white supremacists such as Alabama Governor George Wallace to deny them their constitutional rights.

The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

The most obvious attack upon the Civil Rights movement was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But he was not the only person killed that year. So was Bobby Kennedy, as he closed in on the Democratic nomination for president. So were activists and students. The nightly news in 1968 was dominated by headlines about war, domestic unrest, racism, and political assassinations. We’ve been here before.

As I did then, I turn to music for guidance. The folk and rock protest music of the 1960s and 70s helped stop the Vietnam War. And, the most popular group of the decade, the Beatles, spoke to the madness of 1968 through their song, “Revolution,” which was released in November of that year. Compared to many other groups, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Beatles had been relatively silent on political issues – until John Lennon penned “Revolution.”

Here is the first verse: “You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / You tell me that it’s evolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world. / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know you can count me out.”

Well, 50 years later, nothing has changed. I want to change the world. There are literally as many ways to do that as there are people willing to do it. But when you are destructive, you lose me as an ally.

Being destructive is being lazy. It shows a lack of real thought about how to address our many disagreements. It sets a horrible example for our children, and converts nobody. It is unbecoming of a human being. So, if we wish to convince others to be more humane, we must set the example.

No violence. No destruction. Only love.

Try it. It is my experience that in the end, to be effective, you’ll only have time for love.

© Michael M. Barrick. Photo by Alice Donovan Rouse on Unsplash

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A Few Questions for White Supremacists

What crimes are written on your skin?

By Michael M. Barrick

foundingfathersThe Rev. William Apess, an ordained Methodist minister and Native American (he was part Pequot), put in writing the questions below and asked them of his white audience. He did this in 1833, nearly 200 years ago. Sadly, his questions remain relevant today – perhaps more so, because after two centuries, it is startling to think that every white person in the United States has not been forced to ponder these questions. In any event, here is what Rev. Apess asked of his white Christian brethren:

Now let me ask you, white man … have you the folly to think that the white man, being one in fifteen or sixteen, are the only beloved images of God? Assemble all nations together in your imagination, and then let the white be seated among them. … Now suppose these skins were put together, and each skin had its national crimes written up it – which skin do you think would have the greatest? I will ask one question more. Can you charge the Indians with robbing a nation of almost of their whole continent, and murdering their own women and children, and then depriving the remainder of their lawful rights, that nature and God require them to have? And to cap the climax, rob another nation, to till their grounds and welter out their days under the last with hunger and fatigue. … I should look at all the skins, and I know that when I cast my eye upon that white skin, and if I saw those crimes written upon it, I should enter by protest against it immediately and cleave to that which is more honorable (“The Native Americans,” p. 299).

I enter my protest. I cling to that which is more honorable – the truth that all people are created equal. The dishonorable truth is that white nationalists, supremacists and the KKK are ignorant, abhorrent blemishes on the white man’s skin. As a white man that is descended from “Indian killers” as my forefathers shamefully bragged, I am mortified. I repent. To atone for these sins, all that I can do is shine light on this truth – that no race is superior to another.

© Michael M. Barrick

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Our Way of Life

“Our way of life” requires
a war machine says the president.
He is not the first to say so;
“The Donald” is just more blunt.

Despite the feigned consternation
of the chattering class, this is our history.
A continent conquered through genocide,
the slaughter completed when Chief Sitting Bull was shot down.

An economy sustained by slavery,
its history screams of man’s inhumanity to his own.
Tolerated far too long,
it could be ended only by Civil War carnage.

Industry was built on the backs of laborers
as crony capitalism profited all but the workers.
War was waged on miners in the West Virginia hills
while children in Southern textile mills labored to the bone.

An empire was built
from Cuba to the Philippines.
Puppet dictators were established here and yonder,
while we fought undeclared wars in Southeast Asia.

We have been at war
since our children were – children.
Our granddaughter has yet to live
in a world in which we don’t wage war.

We justify it easily,
even though the boxes we call home
are filled with boxes of stuff.
It is, after all, Our Way of Life.

All “dire threats” to it
will be destroyed.
If in doing so we obliterate ourselves –
it is Our Way of Life.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

Sitting Bull quote

Memorial Day not about Celebrating War, but Ending it

We honor those who gave ‘the last full measure of devotion’ by working for peace

By Michael M. Barrick

George Barrick

George M. Barrick Jr.

It was May 1950, about five years since Morgantown, W.Va. native Lt. George M. Barrick Jr. had returned from World War II, recipient of two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart for meritorious action and wounds received during the Battle of the Bulge. During those five years of peacetime, Lt. Barrick – a direct descendant of Morgantown, W.Va. (then Virginia) founder Colonel Zackquill Morgan – had graduated from West Virginia University with a Bachelor of Arts, received his commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, had fallen in love and started a family.

On May 12 1950, a short paragraph in the social pages of The Morgantown Post noted a visit by Lt. Barrick. It read, “Lieut. and Mrs. George Barrick and their infant son George Barrick III, arrived last night from Ft. Benning, Ga., to visit in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Max Mathers and Mrs. Margaret Barrick on Park street. Lieut. Barrick has been assigned to Japan for 30 months duty and will leave for San Francisco, May 29. Mrs. Margaret Barrick and Mathers Barrick (his brother) motored to Fort Mead, Md. to meet the visitors.”

Though it spoke of a new deployment, it did so without alarm. As it turned out, this brief account of a family gathering is also an account of the last time the family was together, for in less than two months, Lt. Barrick was dead, killed in action in Korea.

George jr and sara and son

George Barrick Jr. with his son, George III and wife, Sara, in Morgantown, W.Va. in May 1950.

The social announcement hinted at no such danger. Nearly five years since Japan’s unconditional surrender to Allied forces in August, 1945, the United States military continued to serve as an occupying force. So, the assignment seemed routine. That changed, however, on June 25 when North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel in overwhelming force, quickly capturing the South Korean capital and driving the surprised and disorganized army further and further south. Soon afterward, the United Nations condemned the action and authorized the use of force to repel the invasion. Based on this resolution, President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops into the war. The closest – those overseeing the transition in Japan – were among the first to be airlifted into areas still under South Korean control, soon to be positioned in defensive positions among unfamiliar hills and valleys, with rifles and bazookas to hold off tanks.

So, in just over two months, a much different story was being told in the local newspaper. The Morgantown Post of July 26, 1950 carried this headline: “Local Officer Reported Missing in Korea Action.” Beside his photo, the newspaper reported, “This area’s first casualty of the Korean War was reported here today with the receipt of word that 2nd Lieut. George M. Barrick Jr., 26, has been missing in action since July 12.” The article continued, “Lieut. Barrick, son of Mrs. Margaret Barrick, was serving with the 21st Infantry Regiment of the 24th Division, the first American unit to go into action against the North Koreans.”

George and Mike Barrick

George Barrick Jr. (left) with his brother, Mike, ca. 1934

It wasn’t until November, 1950 that his family learned for certain that he had been killed. It was even longer before he returned home. Indeed, it was more than a year since his last visit in May. Again, the local paper tells the story. In the June 20, 1951 edition of The Dominion-News, the headline read, “Body of Hero Brought Home: Barrick Rites Set for Saturday.” Again accompanied with a photo of Lt. Barrick in his uniform, the first full paragraph read simply, “The last full measure of devotion.”

The account continued, “Home yesterday from the faraway battlefield in Korea on which he died last July fighting under the country’s colors accompanied by a military escort, came the body of Lieutenant George Milton Barrick Jr., son of Mrs. Margaret Mathers Barrick and grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Max Mathers of this city.”

Max Mathers holds George Barrick Jr

Max Mathers with his great-grandson, George Barrick III in May, 1950.

After detailing funeral arrangements, the story continues, “Lieutenant Barrick was one of the most popular young men to reside in this city. He was a direct descendent of Colonels Zackquill Morgan and John Evans, Revolutionary War heroes and pioneer settlers of what later became Morgantown and Monongalia County.” The account revealed, “He was killed while commanding an ammunition and pioneer weapons platoon of the Headquarters Company, Third Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Division.”

He was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on June 25, 1951, one year to the day that the Korean War began. Those present at his funeral Mass prayed, “O Jesus our Savior….Grant peace and eternal rest to the souls of all who were engaged in this whirlwind of war and were swept unto death.” Now, 67 years since these events unfolded, with peace still quite tenuous on the Korean Peninsula and around the world, there is no greater time to pray and work for peace – so that accounts of pleasant family gatherings such as those from May 1950 are not nullified by battlefield dispatches just two months later. Such prayers and efforts make the sacrifice of Lt. Barrick – and every person who has given “the last full measure of devotion” – worthy of honor.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2016-17. The author is the nephew of Lt. Barrick.

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Praying [Stefan Kunze]

Credit: Stefan Kunze

Don Blankenship Got by with Murder

His shameless contempt for working people is business as usual in West Virginia

By Michael M. Barrick

I was with my uncle once when he was appealing a local property tax assessment. He was told that he had the right to appeal, but that the appeals board could, if it wanted, actually raise his taxes if they deemed it appropriate. They could also uphold it, or reduce it, but that initial caveat was enough to give pause.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Don Blankenship (Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s too bad that isn’t the scenario faced by Don Blankenship as he appeals his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. He just recently completed his paltry one-year prison sentence for that conviction, which was based on charges after 29 coal miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine, which at the time was owned by Massey Energy. Blankenship was its CEO and court testimony revealed that he was intimately involved in the conscious efforts to violate mine safety standards – violations that eventually led to the explosion that killed the UBB miners. These facts were supported by the “Report to the Governor” by the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel. It characterized the April 5, 2010, explosion: as “ … a failure of basic coal mine safety practices.”

So, if there was justice in this country, Blankenship could appeal, but would face these options, as did my uncle:

  1. Conviction upheld
  2. Conviction overturned
  3. Conviction upheld, and the judges rule that the one-year sentence was a perversion of justice and that Blankenship is to immediately be returned to prison for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately only the first two options are available. So, the families of those killed at UBB are again subjected to another news cycle of Don Blankenship pretending he is not only innocent, but as he wrote in his little pamphlet after his conviction, “An American Political Prisoner.”

Meanwhile, surviving family members of the UBB tragedy are unwilling prisoners to the memories of their lost loved ones, for that and photographs is all that is left of them.

This, sadly, is too typical of the stories out of West Virginia. Don Blankenship got by with murder. His self-published book is infuriating; his continuing denials and appeals nauseating.

The state of West Virginia is the poster child for the horribly negative effects upon working class people by crony capitalists. This is not news. Sadly, to a large extent, the people of the Mountain State have brought this upon ourselves. We elect people to office who not only refuse to ensure proper laws and regulations are in place to protect miners and all of the state’s workers, but also instead roll them back.

The discovery of coal, gas and oil throughout the state in the 19th century led to an unholy alliance among industrialists and politicians; to this day, it continues to subjugate the people of West Virginia for its own personal profit. The judiciary is next to useless, as it is full of minions financed by – you guessed it – Blankenship. The new governor, Jim Justice, not only has a record of ignoring and delaying payment of fines for his own mining operations, he is the state’s richest man. He talks the game, but his record suggests that his preferential concern is for his cronies, not his constituents.

wv-dep-logoMeanwhile, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is known throughout the state as the “Department of Everything Permitted.” And, that was before Justice purged it of previous top officials who were constantly criticized by environmental and public health advocates. In comparative hindsight, they were true champions of the people. So, despite the evidence of extreme threats to public health and the environment, Mountaintop Removal permits are rubber-stamped by DEP, despite the best efforts of citizens and environmental groups such as Coal Mountain Watch, OVEC, and countless others.

Meanwhile, anyone attending the various meetings for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline has witnessed the collusion among industry, politicians and law enforcement, in scenes reminiscent of the West Virginia Mine Wars when private detectives and local cops worked for the coal companies. At one meeting in Jackson’s Mill in 2014, I saw several hundred residents – some who had driven more than two hours over the state’s winding roads – leave in total disgust. They saw that the cards had been stacked against them before they walked through the door. What had been billed by industry officials as a “town hall” was really an opportunity to spew forth propaganda. They aligned themselves as if at a trade show. There was absolutely no opportunity for citizens to ask questions in a public forum that would have allowed for give-and-take. The gas company knows how to silence citizens. But just in case they failed, standing outside were several county deputies dressed in full riot gear.

The message was delivered loud and clear: We’re in charge, this is a show, and there is nothing you can do about it.

It is this absolute control of West Virginia’s economy and political system by the fossil fuel industry that allows them to be disdainful of the people of West Virginia – and to cause Don Blankenship to delude himself into thinking he’s a political prisoner. The truth is, he is simply another fat cat conducting business as usual in West Virginia, and getting by with murder in the process.

State seal_old goldWest Virginia’s state motto is “Mountaineers Are Always Free.”

Well, we aren’t. In fact, it is we, not Don Blankenship, which are the political prisoners. If only we had the fight in us that Blankenship has. How long will we be prostrate at the feet of the likes of Blankenship?

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Drawn to Mother Earth

Ecological Groups Take on West Virginia AG over Clean Power Plan

Ecological Monitoring Group Challenges Virginia Governor to be Transparent about Pipeline Deliberations

Environmental Groups Target WVDEP over Mountaintop Removal Permitting

Environmental Scientists, Activist Applaud Mountain Valley Pipeline Ruling

EQT Letter Characterized as Misleading and Bullying

Factual Reporting is not Always Balanced

Federal and State Agencies Targeted for Lax Oversight of Mountaintop Removal

Feeding the Military Monster

FERC Independence Challenged by Nonprofits

Fracking Forum a Time to Learn, Unify and Act

Fracking Poses Threats to Public Health, Say Experts

From ‘Almost Heaven’ to ‘Almost Hell’

Groups Work to Bring the Public Voice into Gas Pipeline Projects

Have We Learned Anything from Buffalo Creek?

Health and Well-Being of Residents Being Subordinated to Fracking Industry

Inaugural West Virginia Solar Congress Scheduled

Incompetence and Complacency Increase Dangers from Fracking

Industrial Hemp Offers Hope to Appalachia’s Farmers and Environment

Is This Fair?

Jim Justice Mining Operation Endangers Public Health and Ecology, Says Scientific Center

Jury in Pennsylvania Fracking Case Sees Clear Value in Lives and Property

Learning by Listening

Lewis County Resident Issues a Plea: Wake up West Virginia

Monongah Tragedy Still Looms Large

Mountain Party of West Virginia Offers Response to Governor’s ‘State of the State’ Address

Mountaintop Removal Semantics Debate Gives Ammunition to Energy Industry

Natural Gas Industry Moves from the Absurd to the Profane

Natural Gas Pipelines, the Drumbeats of War and Our Sense of Entitlement

OVEC Publishes Newspaper to Reach 29,000 West Virginians

Pipeline Proposal Raises Questions that Beg for Answers

Pipeline Monitoring Group: FERC Not Doing Job on ACP

Poor Emergency Planning in West Virginia Puts Citizens at Risk

Pope Francis Addressing the Root Cause of Climate Chaos

Pope Francis Gives Hope to Appalachia’s People

Proposed ‘New” Route for Atlantic Coast Pipeline no Better than One Rejected, Say Opponents

Provisions of W.Va. Storage Tank Law Undermine its Stated Intent

Putting Liberation Theology to Practice in Appalachia

Recent Coal Mining Deaths are Acts of Greed, Not ‘Acts of God’

Reluctant Activist

Seeking Dominion over His Own Land

Standing Their Ground

The ‘Deceived God’

The Real War on Coal

Unanswered Questions

Unity the Theme at ‘Preserving Sacred Appalachia’ Conference

Victim in Fracking Truck Accident had Warned Commissioners of Roadway Dangers

Virginia Officials Agree to Demands from Advocacy Group about Pipeline Deliberations

Voices out of the Wilderness

West Virginia: The Rodney Dangerfield of the USA

West Virginia Catholic Diocese Challenged to Reject Coal’s ‘Dirty Money’

West Virginia Church Earns Award for Solar Energy Use

West Virginia Couple Models Renewable Energy

West Virginia Pipeline Project Cited for Numerous Violations

West Virginia Residents in Heart of Fracking Field Join in National Action

West Virginia Workers under Attack in Charleston

West Virginians and Pennsylvanians Standing in Solidarity Against Natural Gas Industry

West Virginia’s History Rooted in Conflict

West Virginia’s Top Story in 2015: People and Land under Assault

Why People Deny Global Warming Clues

WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman Acknowledges Political and Business Climate in Charleston Limits Agency’s Effectiveness

‘You Make Us Want To Leave’

To receive a PDF of the Governor’s Independent Investigative Panel on the UBB disaster, send an email to michaelbarrick56@gmail.com

Take a Hike!

Mother Nature nurtures our souls with wonderment and beauty

By Michael M. Barrick

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MORTIMER, N.C.Wilson Creek is officially a National and Scenic Wild River. That federal designation, which took effect in the summer of 2000 is critical, as the purpose of the law according to The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Systems website, is “ … to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational value in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations.” The National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Wilson Creek earned its designation only because of hard work and cooperation among county and federal elected officials and staff.

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The “creek” which is certainly as much like a river as the stream it feeds into – the Johns River – deserves the designation. Scenic and wild it is, as it tumbles thousands of feet in elevation over 23 miles down the Blue Ridge Escarpment through the Pisgah Forest in northwestern Caldwell County. Through the millennia, it has carved out steep and imposing gorges as well as quiet ponds for fishing or tubing as it nears it confluence with the Johns River.

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Harper Creek, a major tributary of Wilson Creek near Edgemont, N.C.

Its headwaters begin on Calloway Peak, the highest point of rugged Grandfather Mountain at 5,946 feet. More importantly to me is that a favorite spot on it is just 18 miles from my front door. Indeed, on my last visit last week – as I sat on a rocky perch overlooking the waters below and canyon to the north – a couple of determined kayakers were navigating its boulders and rapids.

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Perhaps it is because of how and where I was raised, but my soul demands nourishment from Mother Earth. Its wonderment and beauty is soothing. Add the challenges of a strenuous hike and the focus it requires, and you can understand the origin of the expression, “Take a hike!” It was probably a wife growing weary of her husband, “White Hair Curmudgeon,” grumbling and mumbling.

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I have been visiting here now more than 40 years. Formerly used by the Cherokee as a hunting ground, it was eventually logged by the first European settlers. It was once one of the most vibrant communities in the county, but two devastating floods – in 1916 and 1940 – made worse by the muddy slopes stripped of timber, stopped industry and settlement in Mortimer, though more than a few hardy souls live here and in nearby Edgemont.

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In the summer, it has its share of tourists. On a winter weekday, though, there’s a good chance you’ll see far more critters than people. Especially while the leaves are off the trees, it is where I go to “listen” for whatever I might need to hear; to interact with nature – hawks, whitewater, giant cliffs, rocks, steep paths and more – that are just not available in suburbia.

To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, when I place myself in wooded latitudes, it does wonders for my attitude. So, go take a hike!

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Read more about the National Wild and Scenic River Act

The Cost of Reaching the Moon Must Not Be Forgotten

Honoring the memories of astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee

By Michael M. Barrick

Fifty years ago, the USA was shooting for the moon. In fact, exactly 50 years ago today, as I sat in the recliner at my grandmother’s house to spend the night, a news flash came on the TV that I will always remember – some of the men I considered the greatest heroes on earth had died in a fire in the Apollo 1 Command Capsule in a routine shake-down for their upcoming NASA mission.

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The Apollo 1 official crew portrait. L-R: Ed White, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee. Credit: NASA.

The three men who died that night were Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee. I was most familiar with Ed White because two years earlier he was the first man to walk in space – a death-defying feat that I watched on TV. Indeed, I watched every launch and splash down, not to mention feeds from space during the mission (a marvel in itself), whether at home or in school.

Astronauts were heroes to me because they were modern-day explorers, risking it all.

In the turbulent 1960s, they were a welcome relief from the weekly body counts out of Vietnam and of those protesting the war (think Kent State); of fire hoses, attack dogs, beatings, false arrests and murders being the daily risks faced by Civil Right activists; and, national leaders being assassinated at an alarming rate.

I was a 10-year-old boy, soon to be 11. My imagination had been captured like never before – or since – by the space program. I grieve that my seven-year-old granddaughter has no such heroism to capture her imagination. These are perilous times, complicated by a momentum of mediocrity in our institutions and a very unpredictable president.

nasa-logoThe space program was an explicit acknowledgment that we could literally shoot for the moon despite all of our domestic and foreign challenges. We could do anything if we were focused enough. We taught our children that. We teach our granddaughter that.

For me, however, it wasn’t history. It was the future! Maybe even my future. What red-blooded American kid didn’t want to be an astronaut? We watched the space program unfold before our eyes on TV. Our granddaughter will see it only at the Smithsonian.

I watched those space launches and splash downs. I got goose bumps to see those astronauts emerge out of a helicopter onto an aircraft carrier to the salutes of those on board.

But on that evening half a century ago, they weren’t on my mind. I was enjoying the “alone” time with my grandmother and her cooking, as well as her unlimited supply of Coca-Cola.

And then the news flash. The heroes were dead, as explained in this news report from the next day.

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L-R: Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom training for their Apollo 1 flight. Credit: NASA.

On that tragic evening 50 years ago today, as the newscaster interrupted the show I was watching, I rushed into the kitchen to tell my grandmother Grannyred – affectionately called so because of for her hair color – in sobs what I had just learned. She took my hand and we went back to watch the news. I think she thought it best I not watch it, but she was also a tough realist who really never shielded us from much of anything. Her favorite phrase (at least to me) might have been “Get over it” or some version of it.

Not this night though. She comforted. Eventually, exhausted, I fell asleep. I woke up in the chair on a very frosty morning, a blanket over me. She said no more. Time to move on I guess.

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NASA

NASA did. Two-and-a-half years later, I watched the first men land on the moon. Had astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee lived, it would have been them. Instead it was others. The men who died did not do so in vain. Lessons learned allowed NASA to accomplish the task assigned to it less than a decade earlier by President John F. Kennedy: to send and safely return a man to the moon by the ends of the 1960s.

Sadly, neither major political party is interested in reviving the space program. However, if you’d like to teach somebody young about it, I recommend the movie “October Sky” based on the book “Rocket Boys” by Homer Hickam. Hickam, a West Virginia native, was a NASA engineer.

rocket-boysIn the movie, Homer has a dramatic exchange with his teacher, Miss Riley. He says in desperation that his options in the isolated, southern West Virginia town of Coalwood are limited to do as his father and neighbors did – work the mines. Miss Riley responds firmly, “As long as you’re alive on this earth, you have a choice!”

It was true then and it is true now. So, if we truly want to honor the memories of Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, we need to fund NASA. We need to go where no person has gone before. Let us give our children some hope in the midst of the terror. Maybe even, by turning our attention to the values of space exploration, it will serve as a catalyst for cooperation between nations – and one day, peace. It’s a much better use of resources than building a wall along the US/Mexican border and starting a tariff war in the process.

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© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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A Tribute to Immigrants

People from numerous nations built Clarksburg, West Virginia

By Michael M. Barrick

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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in this small West Virginia town in 1956. Growing up, there were clear distinctions between nationalities. A town settled primarily by Italians coming to work the coal mines in the late 1800s, it also has its share of descendants of the Irish, Polish and other immigrants that created the bustling community I enjoyed in the 1960s.

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Clearly, such progress would not have happened without cooperation. And it certainly would not have happened without the immigrants who gave blood, sweat, tears and their lives to power the nation’s steel mills and power plants. Yes, there were divisions; but generally, we benefited from the diversity. To this day, the proud heritage of the Italian families is evident in restaurants, bakeries, churches and family gatherings. The joy, the laughter, the bantering – and oh, the food!

Understandably, I grew up celebrating our town’s diversity, even though I wasn’t really conscious of it then.

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So, as the issue of immigration comes to the forefront this year, I hope you will consider my memories, and these three photos. They are of a tribute to the immigrants of North Central West Virginia. It is on the courthouse square in Clarksburg.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Two Caldwells: N.C. County Exemplifies the Appalachian Divide

Recent activities reveal not much has changed for decades

By Michael M. Barrick

 

caldwell-county-map(Note: Caldwell County, N.C. is in Northwestern North Carolina, along the southernmost border of Appalachia as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. It is on the eastern slope of the Eastern Continental Divide, with the Blue Ride Escarpment stretching into the county. About half of it is mountainous, though the county and Appalachian region end at the Catawba River, at the southern end of the county. The mountains run southwest to northeast roughly parallel with N.C. Hwy. 18. North of that line, mountain ways still prevail; to the south, the urban Piedmont has infiltrated into what was once rich farm land – and, in places, still is – along the Catawba River. Based upon my travels throughout Appalachia, the observations in this essay apply to many regions of Appalachia trying to recover from its dependence upon a mono-economy).

LENOIR, N.C.  – Any essay or discussion about religion and politics is full of risks, even more so during the sacred seasons of Hanukkah and Christmas and the time of the African-American Kwanzaa celebration. Add in that we just completed the most contentious election season in memory, and we’ve got frayed nerves. So, first some disclaimers about what this essay is not about.

  • This is not a criticism of the Caldwell County schools or anyone working for them. I support public education. I have taught at South Caldwell High School, served on the School Board, was a Community in Schools mentor, and our children attended and graduated from the county schools.
  • This is not about the “right” to say “Merry Christmas.” I’m 60-years-old. Nobody has ever told me I couldn’t say Merry Christmas. If I’ve ever offended anyone saying it, I am not aware of it.
  • This is not about ensuring that we have a Christian nation. We are not a Christian nation. We have never been a Christian nation. I hope to goodness we never have a theocracy. If Donald Trump moves in that direction, you can be sure it’s for political purposes, not because of firmly-held values. I respect other faiths. I respect no faith. In fact, while it’s nobody’s business what faith I hold (or don’t), I can say that I sure do respect my many friends who are agnostic or atheist. Based on the way Christianity is lived out in this country, it’s amazing anyone claims the faith.

Which brings me to what this essay is about: Caldwell County’s contradictory natures. I’ve been traveling here since I was a young child and we’ve lived here the better part of 25 years. History and geography essentially divide the county in half; that it’s a bit contradictory is not surprising. However, our granddaughter’s recent Christmas concert at the school she attends here in the county – combined with the overwhelming support received by Donald Trump in Caldwell – revealed just how ironic and nuanced this county can be.

The Christmas concert was very well done, sweet and well-received. The staff, teachers and administrators are to be commended for the hard work put into it. However, I did not hear one Christmas song that was remotely sacred. That bothers me, because, well, for God’s sake, it’s Christmas! I may have missed it, and if I did, I apologize. Maybe they were given legal advice that prevented them from using sacred music. If so, such advice is questionable, because in the past, choirs have chosen to sing sacred songs; it was done at South Caldwell and courts have allowed them.

In any event, at the end, I imagined that somebody would get up, Jimmy Stewart-like, humbly grasp the microphone and say, “Well, uh … that was sweet, but I fear we have forgotten why we gather.” He or she would then start singing, “Joy to the World” and all in the room would join in.

I suggested it to my wife. She quickly nixed the idea. Plus, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

But still, I imagined it. Of course, it would have been inappropriate. It would have upset the children, disrupted the work of school personnel, and potentially escalated into something quite unpleasant. Still, it seemed like the reaction I expect from people who fiercely defend Christianity and all things Christmas.

It seems all the spunk has been taken out of them. That’s what happens when you can’t find work and your communities are slowly shuttered.

Caldwell’s economic decline because of its past dependence upon the furniture mono-economy has left many unemployed and underemployed people. Finding themselves unable to find new work, they have quietly receded into the decaying neighborhoods of our small towns or small homesteads scattered among our mountain regions. Meanwhile, a slow but growing influx of artists, musicians and craftsman offers hope.

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The L. C. Hudspeth Store – also known as ‘The Blue Store’ along NC 90 near Collettsville. For decades it served the people of the isolated mountain community. Courtesy of Bill Tate.

Geography is a challenge for us also. Northlakes is nothing like Edgemont. The booming south end of the county is more aligned with Hickory. Meanwhile, farmers in Collettsville, Kings Creek, Dudley Shoals, Buffalo Cove and elsewhere struggle to maintain family homesteads as retirees move into the mountain townships like Globe and Patterson. The artisans moving into Lenoir are adding a flavor to the town not seen since Doc Watson was playing downtown.

So, we do seem to have two Caldwells – the conservative descendants of the county’s settlers and the new settlers, looking to convert Lenoir into an art and music destination or live out their retirement years here.

The best description I’ve heard of Caldwell County was from then-Mayor Robert A. Gibbons Sr. roughly 20 years ago. I was working as a reporter at the News-Topic. My beat included the Lenoir City Council. It led to some interesting exchanges with Mayor Gibbons. When he retired, he called and asked that I tell the story of his roughly 25 years as mayor. In an exhaustive and entertaining interview in our conference room, a very relaxed Mayor Gibbons provided an excellent history of Lenoir and insight into the backroom deals not previously disclosed. Not every comment was printed.

However, one thing he said about Caldwell County was so characteristically descriptive and politically incorrect – not to mention arguably accurate – that I had to print it. I’m going from memory here, but I am confident that this is an accurate paraphrase if not exact quote. As we were concluding the interview, the mayor leaned closer to me across the table and volunteered, “You know, there are two kinds of people in Caldwell County. You have the folks living in the mountains that don’t give a happy damn about anything, and then you’ve got those folks who like that dancing on your tiptoes like they do at the Civic Center.”

That sounds like Caldwell County, circa 2016, to me.

With feet in both camps – a Mountaineer, but also a writer – I get it. As a mountain person, I just want to be left the hell alone. As a writer, I am compelled to seek avenues for my craft, avenues which often include me sticking my nose in the business of others. Obviously, these goals can sometimes be at odds.

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Caldwell County is blessed with natural beauty. Wilson Creek is just on example. It drops thousands of feet in Caldwell County. Photo by MB

The artists and musicians are in the minority. Their venues are limited. The existence of the Caldwell Arts Council and other robust efforts in the area are encouraging. Still, the question is, can the two Caldwells coexist? Can the young people filling Lenoir’s restaurants and bars in the evenings lives alongside those folks whose parents and grandparents filled the furniture plants once humming along 321-A? Election Day makes me wonder. Early Voting revealed a very divided community; for 17 days people screamed at one another as the Board of Elections failed to do its job. The school concert, though, brought folks together. For a short time, for our children, we set apart our differences.

That means we can do it in other ways too. So, wherever you fit in the spectrum, let’s remember we’re all neighbors. Feel free to celebrate your faith. But please be kind enough to let others choose not to. That will be a big first step in healing the wounds caused by a very contentious election season. Only then can we move together to help our community continue its recovery.

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! A Festive Kwanzaa! Cheers!

© The Lenoir Voice, 2016 

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