Mountain Sides

A dying West Virginia mining town is down to its last embers, begging the question: Who killed Blair?

May 08, 2000|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The trouble on Blair Mountain started long before Jim Weekley filed his lawsuit.

What happened here began many years ago, around the time Weekley's ancestors settled deep in these Appalachian hills. The trouble started with the discovery of coal.

But don't let Jim Weekley fool you.

The coal industry didn't kill this town.

Environmentalists didn't kill this town, either.

Come to Blair. See for yourself who killed this town.

Start at Charleston, the West Virginia state capital, and drive south for an hour until you reach the Wal-Mart and a new Bob Evans. You're in Logan County now, in the heart of coal country.

Drive another 12 miles, up and over the mountain, around hairpin curves. The town of Blair starts at the foot of the mountain and ends roughly three miles later at a double-wide trailer. In between, there's not much to see.

The dark building on your left was the service station.

That concrete foundation up ahead was the school.

See that house, the one with the words "Arch Coal's mess" spray-painted on the side? Someone lived there before the company bought them out. Look around and you can see where other miners lived. Empty lots stand out like missing teeth.

Up ahead on your right is Pigeon Roost Hollow. That's where Jim Weekley lives.

Did he kill this town?

Weekley was born here. He walked two miles to the two-room school. He met his wife at 12: 15 p.m. on July 12, 1960, when he was lying on the porch banister in a pair of shorts and nothing else and she whistled.

They raised children here; taught them to fish, to hunt, to dig ginseng and yellow root. Weekley is older now, a skinny, gray-haired troublemaker who chain-smokes generic cigarettes, taps ashes into the cuff of his jeans and wants to shut down the last mine in Blair.

All his life he watched coal companies come and go, but in recent years he watched a new method of mining evolve on the mountain across the road. He watched miners blow off the mountaintop to get at the coal underneath. He watched a machine 20 stories tall dump rock into the valley. He knew his side of the mountain was next.

When the company surveyors came up his hollow, Weekley blocked the road.

Then he drove an hour to Charleston to find a lawyer.

His lawsuit claimed that blowing up the mountaintop would choke his creek, level his hollow, kill what was left of his town. There were laws to protect him, except the laws were being ignored.

But when you file a lawsuit that goes after the last mine in town; when you file a lawsuit where coal taxes buy library books; when you file a lawsuit that threatens your neighbor's $50,000-a-year job -- trouble really starts.

A teen-ager dug up Weekley's criminal record, and the Logan Banner ran a front-page story:

Jim Weekley had been caught burning trash in his beloved hills.

Jim Weekley had been caught growing marijuana on Pigeon Roost Hollow.

See what happens in a dying town?

BREAK

At one time, there were hundreds of towns like Blair tucked among the towering mountains of southern West Virginia. Many of those towns died years ago, towns named Ethel, Monclo, Rum Creek.

They all started the same way, by luring hungry immigrants, fresh from Ireland and Scotland, over rugged hills, into towns so isolated that the miners and their families lived in company houses, shopped at company stores, even prayed for salvation in company-owned churches.

The mines were cruel and deadly then, and it wasn't until 1921 that miners had a chance to leave. When thousands of them marched through Logan County to bring unions into the most remote coal fields, they clashed with coal company guards, federal troops and machine guns atop Blair Mountain.

That was the first big trouble in Blair.

Come inside the post office and see what has happened here since. Stand by the potted plants in the window, listen to Garth Brooks on the radio, see for yourself who killed this town.

Follow Hershel Aleshire's finger to a black-and-white photograph taken in 1927. Wait for him to spit Red Man tobacco juice in a Coca-Cola can and he will tell you about Blair's glory days.

At one time, we had 11 mines here.

See that? That was the railroad depot.

This here was our school.

Now these were our stores. We had five or six then.

The photograph doesn't show the beauty shop, the drive-in, the slow-pitch softball field where Hershel's brother Bill met his wife in the 1950s, when every coal mining town had a team, when Bill played third base and Hershel pitched and their team won 43 straight games before they lost to the boys from Clothier.

The picture doesn't show the Trailways bus stop, the beer joints, the tractor-trailers on their way to Charleston.

Now follow Hershel's wrinkled finger out the window, across the road, to somewhere on the mountain, where there's a cemetery ringed with trees. Hershel buried a mother, a father and a son there.

He and his brother left here once, the way every generation has a chance to leave.

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