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Panel digs up miners' history for dedication

September 07, 2008|By DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - The story of the 1922 miner treason trials in Charles Town is about to come full circle.

The trials were the result of an ugly turn of events in the southern West Virginia coalfields as miners fought over union issues, and Doug Estepp said it was a story that was not talked about often.

In fact, Estepp said, it was a story that often was suppressed and authors who wrote about it found it hard getting anyone to talk about it.

Now, Jefferson County residents are helping to bring the story to life in a party being planned Sept. 20 as part of a dedication of the renovated Jefferson County Jail. The Jefferson County Commission renovated the jail to house government office operations.

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About 30 miners were held during the treason trials, which stemmed from miner unrest over brutality and exploitation and the miners' attempt to unionize, according to historical accounts.

In the summer of 1921, about 15,000 armed miners marched toward Logan County searching for other miners who were being held without charges, said Estepp, who was involved in the effort to save the Jefferson County Jail.

The miners made it to Blair Mountain, on the border of Logan and Boone counties, when they faced a line of opposition made up of mine guards, police and volunteers, Estepp said.

The miners tried unsuccessfully to break through the line for about three days, and the result was that between 15 and 20 miners and three sheriff's deputies were killed, Estepp said.

As a result of the deputy deaths, about 800 miners were taken by train to Charles Town so they could be tried at the Jefferson County Courthouse on charges of murder and treason against the state, according to accounts. The miner trials were moved to Charles Town because it was felt that the miners could not get a fair trial in southern West Virginia, Estepp said.

Labor leader Bill Blizzard was found innocent, miner J.E. Wilburn and his son were convicted of murder and sent to prison, and miner Walter Allen was convicted of treason, according to accounts.

Because of a judge's ruling that each of the men would have to be tried individually and the time involved in the process, most of the defendants never were tried, Estepp said.

The treason trials here marked a moment in time when local Charles Town life and that of the miners blended, Estepp said.

Because all 800 miners could not be incarcerated in Charles Town, many were taken in by local families, Estepp said.

When Blizzard was found not guilty, joyous miners carried Blizzard through the streets of Charles Town, according to the Web site www.savethejail.org.

The miners were "swelled by local citizens" and an impromptu parade ensued, according to the Web site.

The obscurity of the story is illustrated by experiences such as those of author David Corbin, who could find few people to talk about the uprising for his book "Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields," Estepp said.

Although Estepp grew up in the heart of West Virginia coal mining in Mingo County, he said he only heard "whispers of it" and claims people still are sore over the issue today.

"I don't think you could put a museum south of the Kanawha (River)," said Estepp, referring to the river that runs through Charleston, W.Va.

Dedication ceremony

Now, Jefferson County residents are digging into the history of the treason trials and are anxious to show off their efforts during a planned dedication Sept. 20 of the Jefferson County Jail.

Estepp said miner uprising-related artifacts will be on display at the Jefferson County Museum on the ground level of the Charles Town Library at 200 E. Washington St., and free tours of the jail at the intersection of George and Liberty streets will be given about every 20 minutes.

A documentary on the mine wars will be one of two films shown at the Old Opera House that day and there will be special guests, including William C. Blizzard, Bill Blizzard's son, Estepp said.

Bill Blizzard Jr., now 90, was 5 when his father was found not guilty and can remember being in Charles Town, Estepp said.

When the estimated 15,000 miners marched on Blair Mountain in 1920, they wore red bandannas, which is how the term "redneck" became coined, said former Charles Town Mayor Randy Hilton, who heads up a committee that is planning the Sept. 20 dedication.

In tribute, the Arts & Humanities Alliance of Jefferson County has made special red bandannas to sell for $5 each at the dedication, Hilton said.

The bandannas read "Support West Virginia Miners. Be a redneck."

Saving the jail

The Jefferson County Commission decided to spend more than $2 million to renovate the jail after a long legal battle to save it.

The commission at one time considered demolishing the old jail, but a group of people calling themselves the Jefferson County Alliance to Save Our Heritage, of which Estepp is a member, worked to save the structure.

Advocates of saving the jail said it should be preserved because of its architecture and because of the miner trials.

Hilton said he is glad to see the jail preserved. He said he supported saving the jail when he was mayor, but because the city was working on a massive streetscape project downtown at the time of controversies over preservation of the jail, he did not want to make a big issue of the jail's fate since the town wanted the streetscape project to succeed.

"It was a sticky moment," Hilton said. "(But) everything worked out and it's a great day. And it's great to stand here with the jail refurbished and put to new use."




On the Web

Times of events planned for a Sept. 20 dedication of the renovated Jefferson County Jail still are being worked out. To keep track of the plans and to learn more about the preservation of the jail and the 1922 miner treason trials, go to www.savethejail.org.

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