Brian Farkas  /  AP
Hundreds of marchers head out Monday, June 6, 2011, on a five-day, 50-mile trek through West Virginia’s southern coalfields in an effort to draw attention to mining threats to Blair Mountain. The mountain is the site of a 1921 armed uprising where between 7,500 and 10,000 coal miners marched for better working and living conditions in the mines. The uprising was the largest since the Civil War and was ultimately put down after federal troops were called in. (AP Photo/Brian Farkas)
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updated 6/6/2011 6:11:18 PM ET 2011-06-06T22:11:18

On this steep-sided mountain in West Virginia's southern coalfields, hundreds will retrace the steps of miners who waged the largest armed uprising since the Civil War, hoping 90 years later to protect the site of that bloody battle.

The protesters will retell the story of the 7,500 to 10,000 unionizing coal miners who fought for principles that helped shape today's U.S. labor laws — and, they hope, keep Blair Mountain from becoming just another barren, flat-topped strip mine.

Much of the coal-rich mountain is owned by two energy companies fighting efforts to put it on the National Register of Historic Places. Such a designation wouldn't automatically stop mining, but it could complicate and slow down the review process.

Some proposed operations on Blair Mountain already have permits and one mine is active, but the coal companies haven't disclosed immediate plans to start blasting on the battlefield.

The protesters set out Monday from Marmet and will march 50 miles over five days, traversing narrow country roads where coal trucks often pass, walking the same route the miners took in the summer of 1921.

As they started down the street, State Police troopers told them not to display signs urging motorists to slow down. Such signs, the troopers said, can only be used by law enforcement and the Division of Highways. They also warned the group to march single-file when they got beyond city limits.

As they walked, one trooper followed along, filming.

Wilma Steele, a 60-year-old art teacher at Gilbert High School and the wife of a retired underground miner, wants people to connect with the mountain's history and realize the cannonballs and shell casings that lie here are not merely artifacts.

"And Blair Mountain is more than just a mountain," Steele says. "It was a chance for people to get over their differences and stand up for what's right."

The miners marched for what was then unthinkable: They wanted to be paid by the hour, not the ton. They wanted a week that lasted five days, not seven. They wanted black miners and white miners paid the same.

They'd been trying to unionize for three years, and they'd had enough when a key ally, Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield, was killed by a coal company's private security guards.

On the battlefield of Blair Mountain — some 1,600 acres stretched across 10 miles of ridgeline — the miners met a dug-in army of law enforcement officers and hired guns who had fortified pickets, protective trenches, homemade bombs and machine guns.

At least 16 men died before the miners surrendered to the federal troops who arrived Sept. 5.

Back then, the marchers tied red bandannas around their necks to identify themselves. They scrambled through the brush carrying rifles and pistols.

Today's marchers — an alliance of historic preservationists, environmental activists and even a few underground miners — carry painted sheets held aloft by bamboo poles.

Like an army on the move, they have support vehicles, too — a trailer with three portable lavatories and others loaded with water, backpacks and sleeping bags. They expected to encounter opposition and met the first knot of industry defenders before they got out of Marmet.

Sixteen-year-old Jessica Vance, her face deliberately blackened with coal dust, held a homemade sign with the red words "tree huggers" inside a blue circle with a slash.

"We support coal," said Vance, whose father, brother and uncle all work in the industry.

The battlefield on Blair Mountain was briefly on the National Register of Historic Places but later removed. Federal law bars sites from inclusion if a majority of landowners object, and after a review of the dissenters, state and federal agencies reviewing the case ruled opponents dominated.

Those who want to preserve the battlefield appealed, and the fight continues in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Much of the mountain is now owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which last week bought out Massey Energy and has an active strip mine just over a ridge from the battlefield. Neither coal company commented on the protest.

Last week, six groups including the Sierra Club and the National Trust for Historic Preservation took a new tack: They petitioned the state Department of Environmental Protection to declare the battlefield unsuitable for surface mining because of its historical significance and beauty.

Spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the agency is reviewing the 200-page document.

The United Mine Workers of America is siding with the preservationists in the court fight but isn't participating in the march.

President Cecil Roberts, whose great-uncle Bill Blizzard marched in 1921, said his ancestor "wasn't thinking about whether the streams along the base of the mountain ran clear or not."

"He was thinking about the near-slavery conditions coal miners and their families were forced to endure. He was thinking about how to make their lives better," Roberts wrote in a recent newspaper opinion piece.

Chuck Keeney will be retracing the footsteps of his great-grandfather, Frank Keeney, who was president of the UMWA in West Virginia in 1921. A leader of the insurrection, he was later acquitted of treason.

Keeney grew up hearing the story of Blair Mountain at family reunions and visits with his grandparents. That story of the American labor movement was not, he said, taught in the sanitized state history course required of West Virginia eighth-graders.

"That's one of the reasons it's so endangered — because so many people are unaware that an incredible event happened here," said Keeney, a history professor at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.

Twelve years ago, Jimmy Weekley organized a similar march. It drew only a fraction of the 600 registered to walk this week.

Weekley, 71, is the last resident of lush and peaceful Pigeon Roost Hollow, below the proposed 2,300-acre site of Arch Coal's Spruce No. 1 mountaintop removal mine. In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revoked a crucial water permit for the project.

Mountaintop removal mining is an efficient but especially destructive form of strip mining that blasts the tops off mountains to expose multiple seams of coal. Rubble is often dumped into nearby valleys, burying streams.

The Spruce mine would have been the largest in West Virginia, burying 7 miles of streams under rubble, including the babbling branch that runs past Weekley's front porch.

As a boy, he caught trout from the stream on a pole his mother made, using crocheting thread for line and a safety pin for a hook.

Mining has all but destroyed Blair, Weekley says, but he believes Blair Mountain still has a future. It could become a national historical park that could bring economic development to Logan County.

He reckons the descendants of coal miners across the country would come to learn about their forefathers. There could be a sightseeing train with tour guides, he says. Riding trails. Hiking trails. Picnic grounds.

"The potential's here if they would just follow through with us."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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