To understand the origins of Blair Mountain, one needs to look back about a decade earlier in 1912. The Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912 was a confrontation between striking coal miners and coal operators in Kanawha County, West Virginia, centered around the area enclosed by two streams, Paint Creek and Cabin Creek.
The strike lasted from April 18, 1912 through July 1913. The confrontation directly caused perhaps fifty violent deaths, as well as many more deaths indirectly caused by starvation and malnutrition among the striking miners. In the number of casualties it counts among the worst conflicts in American labor history.
Prior to the strike there were 96 coal mines in operation on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek, employing 7500 miners. Of these mines, the forty-one on Paint Creek were all unionized, as was all of the rest of Kanawha River coal field except for the 55 mines on Cabin Creek. However, miners on Paint Creek received compensation of 2½¢ less per ton than other union miners in the area. When the Paint Creek union negotiated a new contract with the operators in 1912, they demanded that operators raise the compensation rate to the same level as the surrounding area. This increase would have cost operators approximately fifteen cents per miner per day, but the operators refused. The union called a strike for April 18, 1912.
Their demands where: A.) Recognition of the Union, B.) Improved Pay and the removal cribbing of coal, C.) No blacklisting of fired men, D.) The right to freedom of speech, E.) Removal of requirements to shop at the company store or be fired.
The national United Mine Workers pledged full support, hoping to spread the union into Southern West Virginia, a longtime goal of the union. The UMW promised full financing and any aid it could provide to support strikers. Partly because of the influence of the UMW, the strike was conducted without violence for its first month.
However, on May 10, 1912, the operators on Paint Creek and Cabin Creek hired the notorious Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency to break the strike. Baldwin–Felts responded by sending more than 300 mine guards.
Activist Mother Jones arrived in June, as mine owners began evicting workers from their rented houses, and brought in replacement workers. Beatings, sniper attacks, and sabotage were daily occurrences. Through July, Jones rallied the workers, made her way through armed guards to persuade another group of miners in Eskdale, West Virginia to join the strike, and organized a secret march of three thousand armed miners to the steps of the state capitol in Charleston to read a declaration of war to Governor William E. Glasscock.
On July 26, miners attacked Mucklow, present-day Gallagher, leaving at least twelve strikers and four guards dead. On September 1st, a force of over 5,000 miners from the north side of the Kanawha River joined the strikers’ tent city, leading Governor Glasscock to establish martial law in the region the following day. The 1,200 state troops confiscating arms and ammunition from both sides lessened tensions to some degree, but the strikers were forbidden to congregate, and were subject to fast, unfair trials in military court. Meanwhile strikers’ families began to suffer from hunger, cold, and the unsanitary conditions in their temporary tent colony at Holly Grove.
On October 15th, martial law was lifted, only to be re-imposed on November 15th and lifted on January 10th by Governor Glasscock, with less than two months left in office.
On February 7th Mucklow was again attacked by miners with at least one casualty. In retaliation that evening, the Kanawha County Sheriff Bonner Hill and a group of detectives attacked the Holly Grove miners’ settlement with an armored train, called the “Bull Moose Special.”
Attacking with machine guns and high-powered rifles, the attackers sent 100 machine-gun bullets through the frame house of striker Cesco Estep and killed him. Another miners’ raid on Mucklow killed at least two people a few days later, and on February 10th martial law was imposed for the third and final time.
Mother Jones was arrested on February 13th in Pratt and charged in military court for inciting riot (reportedly for attempting to read the Declaration of Independence), and, later, conspiracy to commit murder. She refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the military court, and refused to enter a plea. Jones was sentenced to twenty years in the state penitentiary and acquired a case of pneumonia.
New governor Dr. Henry D. Hatfield was sworn in on March 4th and immediately traveled to the area as his first priority. He released some thirty individuals held under martial law, transferred Mother Jones to Charleston for medical treatment, and in April moved to impose conditions for the strike settlement. Strikers had the choice to accept Hatfield’s somewhat favorable terms, or be deported from the state. The Paint Creek miners accepted and signed the “Hatfield Contract” on May 1st. The Cabin Creek miners continued to resist, with some violence, until the end of July.
Mother Jones remained under house arrest, in Mrs. Carney’s Boarding House, until she smuggled out a message through a secret trapdoor in her room, a message sent to pro-labor Indiana Senator John Worth Kern. Governor Hatfield released Jones, without comment, after a total of 85 days imprisonment.
The Senate’s Kern Resolution of May 26th 1913 led to the United States Senate’s Committee on Education and Labor opening an investigation into conditions in West Virginia coal mines. Congress almost immediately authorized two similar investigations the cooper mining industry in Michigan, and mining conditions in Colorado.