CENTRAL, W.Va. — At the dirt road entrance to the Mingo Logan Coal Company site along Route 17 in rural West Virginia, a white metal sign hangs, riddled with bullet holes, announcing "NO TRESPASSING" in red lettering.
Kenny King doesn't much care.
The 59-year-old has been trespassing here about weekly since 1991. That's when he first began an effort to transform this place — on top of a mountain in the middle of dense forest about 50 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia — from a coal mine into a national monument.
King says the mountaintop is where a critical moment in West Virginia's history unfolded, and he wants people to remember it.
On Aug. 26, he had some help. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that a contingent of environmental groups representing his cause has legal standing to participate in King's suit to get the area designated as a national historic landmark.
Now they wait. The August ruling sends the case back to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where a judge will now decide if the U.S. Department of Interior erred when it removed Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places. That ruling will be just the next in a long line of court decisions over Blair Mountain. But it will be yet another opportunity for King to tell story.
King's grandfather was on hand at the Battle of Blair Mountain. A notorious fight between union workers and law enforcement during five days in August and early September 1921 ended in an estimated 130 deaths.
On a recent Thursday evening, as he walks over downed trees and through brush alongside Mingo Logan's dirt road, King explains the stakes. Aside from the death toll, the battle was the first time since the Civil War that U.S. military forces targeted a group of civilians. It also represents a time when, King says, workers were inclined to take up arms for fair wages and labor practices.
"This is a big part of American labor history," King says. "It shows you how far people will go for basic human rights." Coal miners around 1921 "were being treated like slaves," he says. "They were being cheated. Everything they did was totally controlled by the coal companies."
And so they fought.
For decades, King has waged his own fight to keep the battle's memory alive. After hearing stories from his grandfather and others about the incident, he began hiking over the grounds and collecting the various munitions — shell casings, canteens, even rusted rifles — that he found hidden in the forest floor. But over the next decade, as coal companies began buying more land in the region for strip mining, he escalated his efforts.
In 2002, after West Virginia's Historic Preservation Office rejected his bid to establish thousands of acres here as a historic landmark, he enlisted the help of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.
It's been a slow climb from there.
In March 2009, the battleground was placed on the National Register of Historic Places — a victory for King and his supporters. But subsequent objections from coal companies that owned the land where King and his supporters are trying to establish a historic landmark led to its removal from the list in December 2009. King and his allies appealed the decision in federal court.
Barbara Wyatt, a reviewer for the National Register of Historic Places, says she stands behind any reasonable effort to preserve important history. "We're preservationists to the core," she says. "And while I don't know this man, Kenny King, I applaud any efforts to preserve Blair Mountain because it's a very important part of our collective history."
Regina Hendrix, a longtime supporter of King's efforts and Sierra Club volunteer who helped to secure legal help from the nonprofit environmental group, took note of the destruction by coal companies.
"In the small towns of West Virginia, there's been so much destruction by coal companies. It's time for us to take our stand here," she said.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, which represents Blair Mountain landowners, said there is a conscious effort to work toward a practical solution.
"These companies are more than willing to find a way to mark the location of the battle itself. But we have suspicions that the Sierra Club's involvement is more in the direction of stopping drilling than acknowledging a historic landmark."
Not all area residents feel the need to memorialize the event of 90-plus years ago.
At the Hot Cup coffee shop in nearby Logan, Boothe Davis contends that few people in the region have even heard of the battle that King wants to commemorate.
"If you go around to 10 people here and ask if they know what the Battle of Blair Mountain is, I'll bet most have no idea," said Davis, a coffee shop customer and self-described history buff.
King, unfazed, plans to continue his efforts.
"These mountains are a part of us," he says. "I'm gonna keep fighting."