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Re-use plan needed for old Jefferson jail

June 06, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

The West Virginia Supreme Court, which had been expected to hear arguments on the fate of the old Jefferson County Jail yesterday, postponed the hearing until Oct. 9. The delay is an opportunity for demolition opponents to build public support for some productive re-use of the old structure.

The 1917 jail is adjacent to the old county courthouse and the county commissioners want to tear it down to build two or three new courtrooms.

That plan is opposed by JC PASH - Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save Our Heritage - which says the structure is historically significant because it played a key role in ending the "Mine Wars" of the early 1900s.

As chronicled by the West Virginia State Archives, that time in the state's history featured coal miners who were one step up from slaves, men who did dangerous work with tools they had to from the coal companies. Strikes were sometimes put down with armed guards and workers who objected to poor treatment often put their lives in jeopardy.

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In 1921, after a sheriff popular with miners for his fair treatment of them was murdered on the steps on the McDowell County courthouse, thousands of miners joined an insurrection. It was put down only after federal troops arrived and most of the protesters surrendered and were sent home.

But their leaders were indicted for treason and were sent to be tried in Jefferson County, where they were jailed briefly before making bail. Their leader, "General" Bill Blizzard, was acquitted.

The Supreme Court is asking the parties to comment on a law that would allow 10 percent of those who voted in the last general election to ask that the demolition of a government building be put to referendum.

Both sides will no doubt submit briefs, but what JC PASH should also do is submit a plan for re-use of the old jail, possibly as a museum that would depict the history of coal mining in the state. Saving the building is just the first step toward turning it into something useful again.

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