Sunday, October 19, 2014

Traveling West Virginia: Coal Wars, Murder and Matewan

Larry and I had a place on our bucket lists that we wanted to visit: Matewan, West Virginia. The name might not be familiar to a lot of people but to those of us in West Virginia--and particularly those in the coal regions, the name brings a chill to the bones.

Today Matewan is a quiet little town far off the beaten track, nestled between steep mountains and the Tug River. Across that river is Kentucky.

There is a new road that winds across a high steep mountain now, making access better than it probably used to be but even so Matewan isn't an easy place to get to.

We passed small communities that probably were once coal camps,

tipples still running coal,

coal trucks, mine entrances, pens of fighting roosters, many churches and homes that ranged from newly built to the old coal camp houses.

 Quiet now, it's hard to believe that Matewan was the site of a bloody massacre. The year was 1920. Coal was king and coal miners were really nothing but serfs in that kingdom, working long hours in poor conditions for little pay (and often paid only in scrip, the money manufactured by the coal companies and spendable only in the stores owned by the coal companies). By 1920 people were getting fed up, and union talk was in the air.

The coal companies responded harshly. A man known to be involved in union talks would find himself and his family out on the street, kicked out of their company-owned houses and jobs and with little hope of getting work in another mine because his name would be known to the other operators. Baldwin-Felts detectives (thugs, honestly) were brought in to do the dirty work, and on this particular day in Matewan things got ugly.

The detectives came to town on the train and announced that they were booting six families out of their homes. The mayor protested but the company men went about their business as planned, then returned to the train station. The mayor, sheriff Smilin' Sid Hatfield and several other men were there to meet them. Somehow, and no one knows for sure who did it, a shot was fired and that opened up a fusillade of gunfire that ended with 10 men, including the mayor and several Baldwin-Felts agents, dying in their own blood on the streets and walks of the town. Bullet holes from that horrific battle can still be seen in the bricks of downtown buildings. The first man shot was the mayor, and some people believe he was shot by Sid Hatfield because Sid was having an affair with the mayor's wife. True or not, it is fact that Sid and Jessie were married 10 days later.

Matewan is also the home of the deadly Hatfield-McCoy feud; many people in the area are descendants of one side or the other and when you talk to residents of the town the story is so fresh it seems like it happened only recently and not 100 or more years ago. While the feud is interesting history, it is the story of the struggle for better wages and working conditions, the incredible bravery of men and women who willingly faced hardship and even death because they wanted more for their families, that drew us to the town. What was this place that bred such strong, determined people? I have wanted to go there to see for myself since I saw the movie Matewan. Larry comes from a line of coal miners, and his grandfather was involved in the struggle when the miners of Cabin Creek, WV fought for a union. So you know he wanted to see this place as well.

Once in town we made the new railroad depot museum our first stop. The depot was built using the original blueprints for the original depot that was torn down back in the 1960's when coal was in a slump and the town was hitting bottom. Trains today run almost every 30 minutes, a sign that the times have improved.

Inside are displays explaining the history of the town, of the coal industry and the famous feud.

Floodwall entering Matewan
A floodwall now surrounds Matewan. The town was often flooded by the Tug River prior to the floodwall, but now it is protected and, as one man told us, some people have mixed feelings about that. He said that one building owner complained that with the floodwall in place he can't even get any federal dollars anymore for flood damage! Tongue in cheek, of course.

The town is seeing a new, modest prosperity returning due to several factors. First, of course, the interest in labor history and coal mining has sparked people's interest in the town's past. The recent TV series about the Hatfield-McCoy feud has also brought in visitors, and then there is the Hatfield-McCoy ATV Trails.

Muddy trailbikes, and Larry carrying bags--we found some cool things
at the junk shop!
That business is booming! We saw lots of people out riding, many muddy boots and vehicles, and all kinds of shops catering to this new trade. There were several bed-and breakfasts around too, and I'd bet that the ATV riders are what keep them profitable.

The lady at the museum told us where we could see the bullet holes so we moseyed over there and pushed the button that played a tape of the shootings.

The tape had accounts from two people who were children and eyewitnesses to the shootings--pretty riveting stuff. After that we walked around town, visited a great junk shop (you know I'd find one!) and then stopped for lunch at one of the town's restaurants.

Inside the restaurant

While there we got into conversation with a man who ran airboat tours on the Tug River. We had a great conversation and he offered to show us a bit of the town, and also to show us the grave of Sid Hatfield, who was killed some time after the shootout while he was standing with his friend Ed Chambers and their wives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse.

We had been to that courthouse a few years ago, and stood on the very spot where he was killed. Sid was a controversial man but one thing about him is certain: he was no coward. Another thing: he was 100% behind the miners and would probably have been a powerful leader for them had he not been killed. Who killed him? No one knows for certain, but I feel sure that the coal barons feared the power of this young, charismatic man.

Hearing the stories is one thing; seeing the actual graves of Sid and Ed brings the reality home.

High on a hillside in a small cemetery on the Kentucky side of the river, the graves look over the Tug River valley. It was lightly misting when we were there, a gray day befitting our mood as we gazed at these stones.

We did not want to leave; there was still much to explore, to hear, to learn. But I had a performance in Beckley that evening, and we needed to get on the road. We'll go back to Matewan, though. There is still much I want to know.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


Nance said...

Thanks for the history lesson. Your photos and commentary brought this home to me.

Steve Ferendo said...

A great write up with wonderful photos. Matewan has a strong aura about it if one is aware of the history of the town and the area. It is good to hear that it is not forgotten and fading from memory as so many such locations are.

annie said...

enjoyed your post!
I've seen the Matewan movie and the Feud! the bullet holes, wow!

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