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.
The tour took us to a converted church near the site being used by the Friends of Blair Mountain, which is fighting to have the battlefield protected as an historic monument.
Brandon Nida, an archaeologist working with the preservation group, said recent discoveries are challenging many of the previous assumptions about the course of the battle.
"There's 30 to 40 years of archaeological research that can be done here," he told the group.
One of the emotional moments came when we heard from a frail-looking Jimmy Weakley of nearby Pigeon Roost Hollow, a 71-year-old retired miner who has been fighting mountaintop removal for more than a decade.
"It's about the future for our kids, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren," he said. "It's hard to do — fighting the coal company."
From Blair Mountain the tour took us to Matewan, in the heart of Hatfield-and-McCoy country in the far southwest region of the state.
It was there on May 19, 1920, that town Police Chief Sid Hatfield, a union sympathizer, and local miners squared off against a group of Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers who had come to town to evict miners and their families from company-owned housing.
Who fired the first shot is unknown, but by the time the firing stopped, 10 people lay dead — including seven Baldwin-Felts detectives and the town's pro-union mayor, C.C. Testerman.
The tour took us through a hardscrabble town where many of the buildings from which miners fired still stand and where bullet holes can still be seen in the brick. At the local United Mine Workers hall, which remains open though the union has been severely weakened in recent years, the Matewan Massacre Drama Team in period dress presented a re-enactment of the town's fateful day.
The players are serious about preserving history. Some, like carpenter Chuck Scott, have done extensive research into the events in Matewan and the stories behind their characters.
"We try to get it just as close to the truth as we can," said Scott, who plays Baldwin-Felts agent Lee Felts, who died along with his brother Albert that day.
Though he grew up in Mingo and suspects his grandfather might have been involved on the union side that day, Scott said he never heard about the events of that day until the movie came out. He said it was something people in town just didn't talk about.
"It's a story that needs to be told because this type of stuff is still going on," said Scott, who sees parallels between what happened in Matewan and the uprisings this year in Egypt and Yemen. "This story will just get ahold of you and shake you to your core."
The next chapter of the story played out at the tour's stop the next morning in Welch, W.Va., where Hatfield was summoned to appear for trial in the company stronghold of McDowell County on charges not related to the Matewan Massacre. On Aug. 1, 1921, he and his friend Ed Chambers were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents as they climbed the steep steps to the ornate 1894 Romanesque Revival courthouse.
Though the event was the most dramatic in the history of Welch, the historical marker outside the courthouse makes no mention of the assassination, which helped spark the march on Blair Mountain.
McDowell County Judge Rudolph J. "Rick" Murinsky said his grandmother was a witness to the killings.
"All she ever would say is they killed those people right in front of their wives," he said.
The meeting with Murinsky was one of the unscheduled encounters with West Virginians that were among the highlights of the trip. Time and time again, people who weren't on the program added their insights to the state's history.
Estepp said one of the prime motivations for launching the tours is to encourage people to visit the often-overlooked southern part of the state.
Another highlight of the trip was the countryside itself — more rugged than the parts of Appalachia closer to Baltimore and in many ways more interesting. Scenes of exquisite natural beauty are interspersed with scenes of environmental degradation and economic abandonment. Especially striking was the sheer number of closed-down public schools going to ruin.
The tour was not a journey for those addicted to creature comforts. The bus was modern, but the rides were long and hard on the derriere. The tour ran behind schedule. The food was mostly simple country cooking rather than gourmet fare. Travelers who enjoy an adult beverage at the end of the day had better pack their own, because the otherwise comfortable West Virginia state park lodges where we stayed were either dry or closed their dining rooms too early.
Estepp said he will learn from the first tour and tweak the itinerary for future trips.
The tour would conclude with a visit to the town of Bramwell in southeastern West Virginia. The contrast with gritty Matewan and Welch could not be more complete, because Bramwell was the town where the coal barons built elegant homes. Taken by itself, the Bramwell stop would have been a pleasant architectural tour. After three days of studying the plight of the miners employed by those millionaires, it was a potent political statement.
For some of the participants, the tour was a little too ideologically oriented.
"I'd have liked to have got a little bit more of an objective look at it," said retired Army officer Ralph M. Larson, a history buff from San Antonio who nevertheless found the history "fascinating."
But for other travelers, many with a background in labor unions or environmental activism, the message behind the tour was spot-on. On the last night, some of the travelers led the group in singing union folk songs such as "Which Side Are You On."
Mike Stilwell of Joppatowne said the topic appealed to him because of his family roots in the coal fields of southwestern Pennsylvania.
"It's fantastic," the Joppatowne resident said. "It's just blown me away how good it is."
If you go
West Virginia Mine War Tour
A second tour is planned for Sept. 25-27. The cost is $549 for single occupancy, $499 per person for two sharing a room. Two nights' lodging, meals, taxes, admissions to sites, tour DVD and T-shirt are included. A $150 deposit is required. Organizers also plan additional tours next year, with an October 2012 tour that will depart from Baltimore. For information, go to coalcountrytours.com/.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun