The Battles of Blair Mountain

One determined West Virginian keeps alive the memory of an epic miners' struggle.

 

Kenny
Kenny King holds a bullet found at Blair Mountain, the site of a fierce 1921 battle between coal miners and their government-backed employers.

Credit: Cameron Davidson

One afternoon last year, Kenny King steered his silver pickup down a bumpy gravel road beside a creek in West Virginia. He parked his truck, got out, and strapped the black shaft of a metal detector to his left arm. After grabbing a trowel, he charged 20 paces through light underbrush to a spot he seemed to know by heart. The woods were quiet, and the detector made a low humming sound as King waved its halo over leaves and twigs. In a few seconds, the instrument started to buzz.

King began digging into the topsoil and came up with a two-inch-long shell casing. He wiped it clean, but the head stamp was still hard to read. "It's gotta be a .22," King said. "Whatever it is, it's been in the ground for 84 years. I've never found that one before."

King was exploring a section of Blair Mountain, located in the southern part of West Virginia, a land of rippling ridges and deep, shady hollows. Coated in oaks and black locusts, Blair Mountain rises just a bit higher than what surrounds it. Along its crest, 10 woodsy miles known as Spruce Fork Ridge, a bloody battle raged in 1921—a clash between coal miners fighting to unionize and government forces allied with the local coal companies. For nearly two weeks, some 10,000 men engaged in the biggest blaze of hostile gunfire on U.S. soil since the Civil War.

King's grandfather fought at Blair Mountain on the side of the coal miners; a couple of his great uncles fought on the other side. A tireless curiosity about the battle lures him back to the site time and again from his home in Sunbeam, about eight miles away. King, 50, spends many weekends combing the mountain, probing both the crest and the narrow valleys below.

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