Tag Archives: West Virginia 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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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.

apollo-1-astronauts

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.

apollo-1-astronauts-2

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.

man-on-the-moon

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.

apollo-1-mission-patch

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

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Monongah Tragedy Still Looms Large

From Monongah to Upper Big Branch, Profits Trump Safety

By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.VA. – It was 107 years ago that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred not far from here.

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

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.

Such human tragedy, unfortunately, left many lessons unlearned.

It was less than five years ago that 29 miners will killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch-South mine (UBB). Just as miners were changing shifts in mid-afternoon on April 5, 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.

Upper Big Branch Credit UMWA

Upper Big Branch
Credit UMWA

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 energy industrialists today, just as it did more than a century ago. This notion was reinforced on November 13, with the indictment of Donald L. Blankenship the former CEO and Chairman of Massey Energy Company. According to the Federal indictment, Blankenship “…conspired to commit and cause routine violations of mandatory federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch-South mine (‘UBB’).”

Additionally, 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.

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).

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 indictment of Blankenship or the tactics of other energy industry giants (such as threatening the use of Eminent Domain before they have been approved for permits by authorities having jurisdiction)

We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 107 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 – and a cause.

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.

NOTE: This is an excerpt from “A Failure of Will: A Century of Death in the West Virginia Coal Mines.” Read the full article here.

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).

West Virginia’s History Rooted in Conflict

Divided loyalties led to state’s founding and continue to this day

By Michael M. Barrick

On June 20, 1863, West Virginia became the nation’s 35th state. It was the only state born out of the Civil War. That legacy of birth in our nation’s greatest internal conflict has dominated the state’s history and continues to this day.

West Virginia State Flag

West Virginia State Flag

In short, West Virginia was – and is – a state of divided loyalties. While a state comprised of intensely proud and independent-minded people, its progress has been largely hindered by these ongoing conflicts of loyalty. Indeed, this history calls into question the state’s motto – Montani Semper Liberi (Latin for “Mountaineers are always Free”).

An honest exploration of the state’s history is a study in outside forces raiding the state’s natural resources, even as those who labored to harvest those resources were left in and remain in poverty. From the removal of virtually all of the state’s virgin forests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the proud but mixed history of coal mining, to the current debate over the benefits and harm of natural gas fracturing (fracking) are all causes for the divided loyalties.

However, this conflict of cultures began even before the state’s founding. A brief look at the role played by prominent citizens of Harrison County during the Civil War illustrates just how nuanced the history of the 55-county state – and the only state situated entirely in Appalachia – is.

Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the most revered generals of the Confederacy, was born in Clarksburg, the seat of Harrison County. Born on Main Street in 1824, Jackson graduated from West Point, served in the Mexican-American War and then began a career as a teacher at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington Va. It was there that he was working and living when the Civil War started in 1861. He immediately sided with the South and was famous in short order for his brilliant and determined military strategy. His legacy as a hero was forever cemented upon his death from friendly fire in May 1863.

Just one month later, the region he left behind was formed as a Union-friendly state. Ironically, it was also Harrison County residents that were among those most responsible for the establishment of West Virginia. John S. Carlisle and other Harrison County leaders were among those who led the Wheeling Conventions (May and June 1861), which ultimately repealed the Ordinance of Secession passed by Virginia.

Two years later, West Virginia was a state, established by proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln. The history of divided loyalties had begun.

It has been most evident in recent years because of the practice and impact of coal mining known as Mountain Top Removal (MTR). Today, one cannot travel the highways of West Virginia without passing countless cars with competing bumper stickers regarding the issue. Those in favor of MTR and generally supportive of the coal mining industry sport bumper stickers that read “Friends of Coal.” Those opposed to MTR and generally concerned about the human and environmental degradation that is synonymous with the industry, display bumper stickers that assert, “I heart (heart symbol) mountains.”

Even more recently, the introduction of fracking, especially in the northern regions of the state, has created significant divisions. There is no disputing that the gas industry is providing the region with many decent-paying jobs. For an area that has been economically depressed for more than 40 years, these jobs are welcomed. Yet, fracking is not without consequences. The neighboring state of Ohio, for example, is presently studying the process as a man-made cause of earthquakes. In addition, questions remain as to whether ground water is impacted by the process. Furthermore, the weight of the tanker trucks and other heavy equipment required for the process are ruining roads throughout the region. It also makes for dangerous driving on narrow roads. Finally, the question of mineral rights is causing conflict, as fracking companies are benefitting from laws that allow them to extract gas from land despite landowner’s objections.

Sandwiched in between the Civil War and the current “War on Coal” (as described by coal interests) are numerous examples of conflicted loyalties.

Perhaps the most famous is the West Virginia Coal Wars of the early 1920s. Coal miners, upset with conditions in the coal mines and company-owned towns and stores, broke into open revolt, leading to The Battle of Blair Mountain. Ironically, a modern-day Battle of Blair Mountain continues over MTR.

Another mining disaster in the winter of 1972 along Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia left at least 125 people dead, another 1,100 injured and at least 4,000 homeless. Additionally, the state has a long history of mine disasters, the most recent being at Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County.

This history of conflict – in particular over the benefits and harms of coal mining – was captured beautifully by West Virginia native Kathy Mattea on her CD, “Coal.” Anyone who has been blessed to hear Ms. Mattea perform from this work understands just how conflicted the people of the state are. The jobs are welcomed – and needed. The thousands of deaths in the coalfields and the environmental destruction are not.

So, today, all throughout the Mountain State, people will celebrate its birthday. I will too, in my hometown of Clarksburg. I will do so, however, with a conflicted heart. I am sure I am not the only one.

© Michael Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.