Coal mining first began in what would become West Virginia in the mid-1800s. The bituminous coal mined there became the fuel of choice for industrial production across America. Demand for coal from the fields of West Virginia surged by the century’s end. By the early 1900s, coal was powering industry, railroads, and streetcars, while also heating many homes and businesses. Considering how much revenue coal mining generated and how indispensable coal had become, many assumed that the men and boys that produced it were doing well. However, the industry was disorganized, decentralized, and often ruled by boom-and-bust cycles.
As mine owners focused on market competition, they ignored the plight of the workers who generated their revenue. Coal miners suffered some of the highest fatality rates among industrial workers. During the early 1900s, scores of miners died from roof collapses, explosions, and fires every year. Large-scale disasters were frequent. The mine safety laws in West Virginia were the weakest in the country, and what laws did exist had few if any provisions to ensure their enforcement. To make matters worse, miners in the state had to contend with low pay, long hours, and the exploitation that came with living in company-owned towns. In fact, more miners were forced to live in company towns in West Virginia than any other mining state in the greater Midwest region.
By the beginning of the century, miners, like many workers across the United States, turned to unions to improve their living and working conditions. In West Virginia, miners specifically tried to organize under the United Mine Workers (UMW), an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor. However, the mine owners and coal operators fiercely resisted any attempts at unionization. From 1912 until 1921, the struggles to organize workers in the coal fields sparked a series of violent episodes. During the outset of what became known as the West Virginia mine wars, the trouble centered in the towns along Paint and Cabin Creek (1912-1913) in Kanawha County. By the later years of the mine wars (1919-1921), the violence shifted southward to three major coal-mining counties: Mingo, McDowell, and Logan.
The culminating events of the West Virginia mine wars began in late August of 1921, when thousands of pro-union miners marched 60 miles from the town of Marmet (just outside Charleston, the capitol of West Virginia) to Mingo County where they sought to free striking miners who had been arrested after the governor declared martial law. To get to Mingo, the marchers had to cross Blair Mountain, a mountain ridge defended by the notorious anti-union sheriff of Logan County, Don Chafin, and his citizen army. The march ended in a violent clash referred to as the Battle of Blair Mountain. This confrontation between armed miners’ and Chafin’s unofficial army constituted the largest pitched battle in the history of the labor movement in the United States and became the largest insurrection on U.S. soil since the American Civil War. The battle only ended after President Harding called in the army to suppress the uprising. Once the military intervened, the miners laid down their weapons and the fighting ended.
While the Battle of Blair Mountain marked the end of open violence, it was not the end of the miners’ struggles. In the Spring of 1922, the state of West Virginia, working in collaboration with private coal companies, indicted over 500 of the pro-union marchers on charges of treason against the state of West Virginia, murder, accessory to murder, and conspiracy to commit murder.
Because of the politically charged atmosphere in the coal-mining counties, the first trials resulting from the indictments took place at the Jefferson County Courthouse located over 300 miles away from Blair Mountain in Charles Town, in the state’s eastern and largely agrarian region. Remarkably, this was not the first time the Jefferson County Courthouse had garnered national attention for a treason trial. In 1859, prior to being largely destroyed during the Civil War, the Courthouse there served as the setting for militant abolitionist John Brown’s trial in the aftermath of his ill-fated raid on Harpers Ferry. Brown’s conviction and execution were instrumental in heightening sectional animosities that led to the Civil War.
While only a handful of defendants were ever brought to trial, these trials marked the last gasp of the push to unionize the coal fields of southern West Virginia during the early decades of the 1900s. Extensive national newspaper coverage of the first trial, that of defendant Bill Blizzard, revealed the lengths to which coal operators and state officials worked together to prevent the workers from organizing. While individual men stood trial for their actions on Blair Mountain, the trials ultimately served as a referendum on the UMW’s right to operate in the state of West Virginia, and their outcomes reverberated through the entire labor movement. The message of the mine wars treason trials was clear: if workers fighting for their rights could be found guilty of treason against the state of West Virginia, a similar fate could befall workers anywhere.
Read on in this in-depth series to learn about the stunning series of events and places associated with the West Virginia Mine Wars. A one-stop visual overview of the geography and events of the West Virginia Mine Wars is available in the story map below.
The articles in this series were written by historian Dr. Rachel Donaldson of the University of Charleston, South Carolina who co-authored the National Historic Landmark study on the Jefferson County Courthouse. National Capital Area intern Max Sickler created the design and layout of the article series in 2021.