New clash over old battlefield in West Virginia coal country

Those who have sought to keep West Virginia’s Blair Mountain open for strip mining despite its storied past did not reckon with Kenny King.

It was on Blair Mountain in 1921 that an army of coal miners clashed with an armed force representing the authorities in league with coal companies — the largest battle on American soil since the Civil War and a watershed in labor’s struggle for recognition.

The state kept the Battle of Blair Mountain out of its history books for half a century and for decades has resisted appeals to commemorate the conflict, presumably because the insurrection was a black eye for the state and the coal industry.

King has long been in the forefront of efforts to honor and save the battlefield. Since 1994, he has been combing the mountain and unearthing evidence of the fighting, documenting it and pressing officials to safeguard the battlefield from coal companies eyeing it for the most draconian form of strip mining, known as mountaintop removal.

“Without Kenny King’s efforts … much of the battlefield may well have been obliterated by this time,” archaeologist Harvard Ayers said.

King, 55, and his mother have lived in the town of Sunbeam, seven miles from the mountain, since 1962. Self-effacing and easily overlooked in a crowd, King, who works for a coal company contractor, has not been afraid to take a stand against the powers that be in coal country.

Although his employers have worked for Arch Coal and Massey Energy, King has spoken out regularly at public hearings against granting these companies new mountaintop removal permits on Blair Mountain.

“If you believe in something, you just can’t give up on it,” he said. “You’d be sort of lying to yourself.”

Blair Mountain, about 50 miles south of the state capital, Charleston, was the scene of fighting between about 10,000 miners -- bent on extending the protection of the United Mine Workers of America to coal workers -- and more than 2,000 mine guards, police and militia.

When King was a child, his mother told him stories about the battle, including how the miners tried to make a cannon from pipes and haul it up the mountain, and how a group of captured miners was taken into a hollow and never seen again. His grandfather fought with the miners, his great-uncle for the operators.

The combat lasted for close to a week, until federal troops were called in and imposed martial law. Total casualties were never revealed, but best estimates put the death toll at 16; some think the number was far higher.

The miners put down their guns with all their aims unrealized, and hundreds were indicted for murder, treason, conspiracy and other charges. Only three were convicted — one miner of treason and a minister and his son of murder. The miner jumped bail; the father and son won pardons after serving three years in prison.

The union was flat on its back for years, recovering only under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Even so, the miners union and its supporters have always seen the Battle of Blair Mountain as a revered chapter in the miners’ story, their rebellion against bosses they viewed as their tormentors.

For years, efforts to preserve the battlefield were met with silence by politicians and even the union. At today’s prices, the mountain is estimated to contain upward of $1 billion worth of coal.

There was no sustained drive toward saving the battlefield until King became interested. He relentlessly dug up artifacts buried on the battlefield and for a decade waged a lonely struggle to save it. He once brought more than 200 captioned photos he shot of battle sites and artifacts to state officials, but they were dismissed because he was not a professional archaeologist.

Eventually, environmental groups stepped in to help King with mapping, aerial photographs and a historical narrative. With King’s help, Ayers documented the presence of 15 battle sites, trenches once strung with telephone wires, and more than 1,000 artifacts, including 26 kinds of rifles, shotguns and pistols.

King was finally vindicated last year when the state nominated the battlefield to the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Service conferred the status.

But months later, the state withdrew its nomination and the federal agency removed it from the register. Landowners on the mountain had to agree to the listing, and a recount showed that a majority was opposed to it.

King, Ayers and others have called the recount a fraud. Preservation and environmental groups have filed an administrative appeal and warned the National Park Service they will sue if it does not reverse the delisting. Last week the park service refused to reverse the delisting but recommended the state renominate it to the National Register. The state has said nothing and so far no lawsuit has been filed.

As strip mining creeps closer and closer, King’s fight goes on.

Slavin writes for The Times.