Matewan, W. Va.

Display about the Matewan Massacre of 1920, in which 10 people died in a gunfight involving union miners and company guards, at the railroad depot museum in that West Virginia town. (Michael Dresser, Baltimore Sun / June 20, 2011)

West Virginia may be known in popular song as "Almost Heaven," but it's a state that's seen more than its share of hell.

A vicious gunfight in the streets of a small town, two men assassinated on the courthouse steps in front of their wives, coal company stores designed as much to strip away miners' dignity as to provide life's essentials, the deadliest battle on American soil in the 20th century — they're all part of the story of the Mountaineer State.

It's a history that's been largely expunged from textbooks and purged from the memories of the state's citizens, but it came to life in June during the inaugural run of Doug Estepp's West Virginia Mine War Tour.

Estepp, the grandson of a West Virginia coal miner and a self-taught historian, conceived the idea of a bus trip as a way of telling the story of a bloody war that pitted union miners against private armies hired by mine operators. Raised in Mingo County, the site of the shootout that became known as the Matewan Massacre, Estepp said he didn't discover his hometown history until he attended West Virginia University.

"In my opinion, it's been actively suppressed," said Estepp, 51, who started Coal Country Tour as a way to share his heritage.

The three-day tour took my wife and me, along with about 30 others, through parts of West Virginia that few tourists visit, stopping in the poorest counties of one of the most scenic but impoverished states in the Union.

We started early on a Thursday morning in Charles Town, W.Va., less than two hours from Baltimore and set off from there to Beckley in the southern part of the state. It would take more than four hours to reach our destination, so Estepp broke up the tedium and set the stage for the stops to come by screening John Sayles' 1987 movie "Matewan," a fictionalized but compelling Hollywood treatment of the events leading to the bloodbath on the streets of that town.

"It doesn't show half of the brutality that went on down there," said Estepp.

Like the movie, the tour itself comes with a point of view that is heavily pro-miner and anti-coal operator. While the subject could fascinate those of any political stripe, Estepp's take on that history and choice of itinerary are more likely to appeal to watchers of MSNBC than Fox News.

The first stop was the Exhibition Coal Mine and museum in Beckley. The museum, which depends heavily on coal company sponsorship, presents a sanitized version of West Virginia history — not surprising, given the industry's concerns about its image. But the stop was worth it for the tour, which gave a group of city slickers a glimpse of the conditions in an underground mine of the early 20th century.

The tours aboard a train car are led by retired miners, and on our trip 125 feet below the surface our group had the good fortune to be shown around by Roger Jarrell, who has more than 28 years of experience in the mines.

Jarrell explained the procedure for setting off explosives, including the cry of "fire in the hole," and why miners actually did carry canaries into the coal mines. The cheerful 58-year-old also put in a good word for the four-legged inhabitants of deep mines.

"Everybody loves rats. Rats are a coal miner's friend," Jarrell said. If he were to see rats scampering his way, he explained, he'd know the roof was about to fall or there was smoke in the mine.

After returning to the surface, the group got back on the road to the tiny crossroads of Scarbro, where stands one of the few remaining examples of the company store to whom the miner in "Sixteen Tons" owed his soul.

The Whipple Company Store is an amazing period piece and architectural marvel owned and turned into a museum by retirees Chuck and Joy Lynn, who saved it from demolition in 2006.

Joy Lynn explained that the store owned by coal baron Justus Collins was run under strict rules enforced by guards from Baldwin-Felts, a company reviled by union miners as a provider of "gun thugs" for the coal operators. The miners couldn't spend cash at the store, only company-issued scrip. There were strict rules on where miners could or could not stand. And the front steps were intentionally designed to be steep –– so the guards could easily knock down any miner whose attitude they didn't like.

Behind many of the artifacts on display are stories of the miners' lives. Lynn held up a metal container — taller than the ordinary lunch buckets toted by most miners — and explained that it was a "boy bucket." She said that when a boy age 8 and up lost his father in one of the mine's all-too-frequent accidents, he would have to take his place or see the family evicted. The top compartment was where the boy's mother would tear a scrap from the family Bible, which was believed to represent the spirit of the dead father protecting the boy.

The next day's travels took us to Blair Mountain, where 10,000 to 15,000 armed union miners faced off with coal company operatives and sheriff's deputies in strongly anti-union Logan County in August 1921. The five-day fight, the casualty total for which has been estimated in the hundreds, ended only when the U.S. Army moved to intervene on the side of the operators.

That all-but-forgotten site, where both sides used machine guns and the pro-company forces dropped bombs from planes, has re-emerged as a battlefield in a contemporary fight over history and the environment.

Coal operators, with support from the state's political power structure, have Blair Mountain in their sights for coal extraction by means of a controversial technique known as "mountaintop removal" — a form of strip mining that flattens peaks and fills in valleys. The plan has sparked the wrath of history buffs, who believe it would destroy an important historical site, and environmentalists, who consider mountaintop removal the most destructive form of coal mining.