No, I am not suggesting a seedy bar way
back in the woods filled with rough looking characters. I am
suggesting a visit to wild and wonderful West Virginia. Specifically,
Southern West Virginia, high in the mountains that are filled
with the coal that powers our nation and the people whose lives
are built around it.
Your trip will be a twofold experience. The mountain tops are
filled with exciting
attractions and beauty. In fall, the mountains are alive with
rich colors, red, yellow, orange, brown and green of all shades
and hues. But whenever you go the ancient Appalachian Mountains
of West Virginia have their own special beauty. Then you can go
below the surface and experience what it is like to work inside
|Mountain foliage is gorgeous in the fall in West
The trip will be twofold in another way:
it is fun and educational. After the fun is over and you return
home, you will have the new knowledge of how a miner lives and
works today and in the past. You will also know where rednecks
came from and why they are so proud of it.
Between the States came to an end and the boys in blue and
gray returned to their homes, the nation stood on the brink of a
new and different era. The industrial revolution was about to
change us from a nation of mostly rural farmers and small
businesses into a highly mechanized industrial era and
eventually thrusting the once again United States into a
superpower. Life would never be the same for any of its citizens
but for those small farmers in Southern West Virginia, the
changes were abrupt and drastic. This giant industrial wave that
submerged the nation had an appetite for vast amounts of power
that could only be supplied by coal at that time. Not only was
coal king, it was both slave and master for the people who used
it and the people who mined it.
Of the people who mined it, there were two kinds; those who grew
rich and those who were enslaved by it. Visit the historic town
of Bramwell, located near the southern end of the Coal Heritage
Trail in the bend of the
Bluestone River. Bramwell was founded in 1888. It was a town of
rich coal barons and palatial homes. in the late 1800s it
boasted more millionaires per capita than any other place in
America. The homes were built with no corners cut and today the
Victorian and Tudor style mansions still stand proud and tall.
In its heyday, the Bank of Bramwell handled so much money daily
that their janitor would wheel bags of gold and paper money to
the railroad depot in a wheelbarrow.
|The Goodwill House often refered to as "The Blue
Lady" in Bramwell.
Photo credit Mercer County
Visitors and Convention Bureau
The need to transport the mined coal forged a vital link between
prosperity built on West Virginia's Black Gold and the
railroads. Due to the huge amount of concentrated wealth,
Bramwell was a big rail hub in its day. That reconstructed depot
is now the Southern Interpretive Center of the Coal Heritage
Trail, the place to start your tour. You can take a self guided
tour or groups can book a guided interpreted tour. Spring and
Christmas are the best times to visit Bramwell as they offer
historic home tours of many of the mansions.
For a glimpse of how the
other side lived, Visit Beckley. First stop should be Exhibition
Coal Mine. Enter through the museum. The building is just five
years old and free to the public. Downstairs is reminiscent of a
coal camp general store. Upstairs is the actual museum.
|Deep inside a mine, our guide, Roger, explains the
work of a miner.
The most unique feature here is the underground mine tour.
You board a "Man Trip" which is a tram that holds about
35 people and runs on a track that takes you deep into the
mountainside to experience a working day for a miner in the
early 20th century. Fear not. You won't have to heft a pick and
dig coal all the live long day. The tour takes about 35 minutes.
Remember to bring a jacket as the mine is around 58% year
The guides are all
retired miners. Our guide, Roger Jarrell,
was fascinating. He spent 28 years in a mine.
He drove us deep into the
mine and then hopped out of the tram and demonstrated all of the
different tasks a miner might do in an average day, from the
different kinds of lights a miner might use to drilling the
blasting hole. He explained that a miner would drill the hole
and place the explosive in it and then go to the main tunnel and
face left and yell, "fire" then right and yell "fire." He would
then go back and set off
the blasting cap and if he didn't run outside to get behind the
main tunnel wall, "he would get permanent black tattoos on his
|The superintendent's house is a mini-mansion.
Surrounding the mine, you can visit a typical coal camp. The
superintendents' house is a work of Victorian art. It was built
in 1906 and moved from Skelton, WV.
Our guide, Beatrice Hairston, explained the duties of the
superintend. " He made ten times the salary and didn't have to
pay rent or for his utilities but he could be dismissed. He was
like a mayor. If there was a birth, he had to be told. If there
was a death, he had to be told. He had to keep up with
everything that happened on the town. He had three floors filled
with the latest conveniences and lovely furniture. The average
miner had three rooms."
Beatrice spoke with the
voice of authority. She was a miner's daughter.
|Miner stature at the Exibition
dedicated to West Virginia's coal miners
Next stop is the two room school house. The building consisted
of one large room separate by a folding wall that could be slid
by hand to separate the rooms. Lower grades were in one room
higher in the other. Rules for a teacher then would cause a few
court cases today. A teacher could not marry. or even wear
bright colors. The
school was originally built in 1925 in Helen, West Virginia. The
last of the one room coal schools closed in 1965.
Then it's on to the miners house. This was a small cottage you
normally entered from a back porch directly into the kitchen. No
refrigerator here. Just a small icebox. Furnishings were
utilitarian rather then decorative. One decorative item in the
front room of the house is the small picture of John L Lewis,
United Mine Workers of America president. Lewis was instrumental
in the event that led to the term "redneck." But I'll get to
that part a little later.
There is a small "miners shanty" on site. It would be where a
single miner working at a mine away from home would have stayed
during the week.
Naturally like any community, the coal town church was an
important part of the community. The minister was a vital part
of the community. He did the marriage, funerals and regular
Sunday worship. The church basement served a s meeting place for
the miners and their families during the week. Pemberton Coal
Camp Church was built in 1921 for the Coal Camp at Pemberton,
Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia, adjacent to the
Exhibition Mine supplements your experience. The museum focuses
on railroad history and several rotation exhibits and a
planetarium. Directly behind the museum stands the
Mountain Homestead, a pioneer village reminiscent of Appalachian
life between 1840 to 1910. You will be swept back in time by the
log cabin, blacksmith shop, general store, one room school and
other buildings typical of life in early Appalachia.
The complex offers a 17 site campground that accommodates RVs or
tents campers if you wish to stay overnight or longer.
If you wish to pursue the history of Beckley farther, you can
visit Wildwood, the home of Beckley's founder, General Alfred
|The New River Gorge Bridge is a
One of West Virginia's most unique mining areas is the New River
Gorge National River. It's unique for many reasons. The name
"New River" is misleading. Actually New River is one of the
world's oldest rivers. Only the Nile is older. It is believed
that when explorers came upon the river with its deeply carved
gorge it was not shown on their maps so they called it a "New
River." The other oddity about this river is that is flows
northward unlike any other rivers in the area. In the late 18th
century it was remote and inaccessible but the rich coal
deposits found there brought in the railroads allowing
the rich deposits to be
mined and transported to fuel the industrial revolution.
In 1977 the New River Gorge Bridge, a steel arch 3,030 feet
bridge arching 876 feet above the New River, was completed near
Fayetteville. At the time it was the longest bridge and the
highest bridge in the world and held the title for many years.
New River Gorge National
River stretches for 53
miles from Bluestone Dam to Hawk's Nest Lake and encompasses
70,000 acres. The Canyon Rim Visitors Center offers a glimpse of
the rich history and natural resources found here.
The third Saturday of October, Fayette County closes the
bridge to vehicular traffic and celebrates Bridge Day with BASE
jumping, rappelling and many other activities. A bridge walk via
a narrow catwalk is available year round. Rafting and whitewater
sports are a big attraction on the river.
But if you are following the story of the coal miners, you will
find plenty of history here.
ruins of Kaymoor, which was actually two mines and four
coal towns. There are still old railroad depots that once
moved the coal out of the gorge. If you hike along the old
tracks, you will find pieces of coal under foot. You will spot
the rusted out coke ovens and mine cars and old mine openings
along the trails. (Do not attempt to enter any of the old mines
as they could be dangerous.) You will see old cemeteries with
gravestones of early miners and their families.
You will note may of the death dates show relatively young ages.
There were at least three major coal mine disasters in the New
River Gorge mine fields.
At the Red Ash Mine on New River near Thurmond on March 6, 1900,
an explosion took the lives of 46 miners. The mine reopened
afterwards but just five years later another explosion killed 24
men. March 2, 1915 saw another disaster in New River Gorge. This
time the Layland Mine near Quinnimont exploded killing 114 men.
By this time you begin to see that coal brought a new prosperity
to West Virginia but the miners who worked the hardest and took
the greatest risks, profited the least. By the time of the
Layland Mine explosion, miners in most other states were
unionized and beginning to receive better wages. They were paid
in cash instead of script and basic safety precautions were
practiced. The mine disasters were only one of the factors in a
growing spirit of rebellion. Gross injustice could only be
endured so long before rebellion exploded across the hills and
valley of Southern West Virginia.
|The Coal House
Williamson bills itself "The Heart of the Coal Country." It is
located on the Tug River, its border with Eastern Tennessee in
Mingo County, where the first event leading the Coal Wars
happened. The city puts on a King Coal Festival each September
and one of the exhibits is a display of coal mining equipment
including safety and rescue equipment will be on display.
The biggest attraction related to coal
in Williamson is the Coal House. The Coal House was built
entirely of bituminous coal, 65 tons of it from the nearby
Winifrede Seam. The coal was cut into building stone and is
treated biannually with a weatherproofing varnish to maintain
its appearance. Designed
by architect Hassell T. Hicks as a way to showcase the town's
rich coal heritage, it was never uses as a "house".
It is located next to
Mingo County Courthouse and is the home of the Tug Valley
Chamber of Commerce. Inside is a small museum dedicated to coal
mining and the Hatfield McCoy heritage
the two things that usually bring visitors to Williamson.
|The Matewan Depot Musuem is
information about coal mining
Less than a dozen miles away you reach Matewan, where what is
recognized as the first incident in the Coal Wars erupted. The
Matewan Depot is the place to go for information about the
mining and the ensuing violence. The Depot is an exact
reconstruction of the original Norfolk and Western Railroad
Depot that served as both passenger and freight terminal until
1969. Today it serves as Matewan's Visitor's Center and a
The deadly chain of events began in Matewan on May 19, 1920.
History considers the "Matewan
Massacre" one of the deadliest single shootout’s in
the country. The
United Mine Worker of American (UMWA)
had just elected a
dynamic new president, John L. Lewis. Lewis was determined to
unionize the workers in West Virginia and the miners were ripe
for his invitation. In droves, they met secretly at night and
signed up with the union even though they knew it meant their
jobs and homes since they usually lived in company owned houses. By May 16,
three thousand miners along the Tug Fork River had joined
the local union.
Matewan police chief,
Sid Hatfield, who was a former miner, and Mayor Cabell
Testerman, backed the miners and refused to evict the fired
union miners The coal companies retaliated by hiring the
Baldwin-Felt’s Security Agency to evict the miners, who had
joined the UMWA, from their company homes.
|A map of the typical coal town
On May 19, 1920, thirteen Baldwin-Felts men headed by agency
president Thomas Felts, younger brothers Albert and Lee, arrived
in Matewan. Their aim to evict miners and their families in the
Stone Mountain Mine camp. The furious miners gathered in Matewan
to plan their next move. Sid Hatfield with his deputies and some
of the miners went to the Stone Mountain Camp to plead with the
detectives not to force the women and children from their homes
in the rain but the Baldwin-Felts agents were relentless.
After they finished the evictions, the agents retuned to Matewan
to board a train. Sid Hatfield met them and attempted to arrest
the detectives for illegal evictions. The enraged miners
surrounded him From somewhere in the crowd, a shot rang out.
There ensued a shoot-out that left ten men dead, seven
detectives including the Felts brothers, two miners and Mayor
Testerman, and changed
the future of coal mining forever.
Violence was the order of the day. Miners went about their daily
chores armed. Coal cars were blown off the tracks. Miners were
shot and left along the roadside. Many of the miners were
imprisoned for minor infractions. By July 1, 1920, the miners
called a strike and coal production almost ceased in the Tug
The Governor of West Virginia stepped in and sent in state
police to take control of Matewan. Sid Hatfield
was indicted and acquitted in the murder of Albert Felts.
On August 1, 1921, Baldwin-Felts
detectives shot and killed Sid Hatfield and his deputy, Ed
Chambers, on the McDowell County courthouse steps in the town of
Welch. Both men were
unarmed. They instantly went from miners heroes to martyrs.
|Display in Chief Logan shows
early life in West Virginia
The next significant events took place in Logan County. A good
place to start as well as to stay is Chief Logan State Park. The
lodge there is first rate and offers all
the facilities of an upscale hotel including Indoor
swimming pool, hot tub, fitness Center, wireless internet and
The park has a great museum that showcases local history
including the coal heritage.
You can see photos, tools and implements used by the
miners. In front of the museum you will see a C & O Kanawha
class steam locomotive of the type used for hauling coal and
similar to one commandeered by miners and renamed "The Blue
Steel Special" rushing to assist their union brothers at Blair
Just about 25 miles from Chief Logan State Park, you can visit
the Coal Heritage Museum in Madison, the place coal was first
discovered in West Virginia in 1742. It showcases artifacts,
documents, and oral history recordings of the life of a coal
miner. The museum is free and includes artifacts related to the
Battle of Blair Mountain as well as a company store and
|One of the display boards in
Matewan Depot Musuem
The miners, enraged by
Hatfield and Chambers death, sent representatives, Frank Keeney
and Fred Mooney, to appeal to Governor Morgan. Morgan dismissed
the miners petition. The miners seeing no help form authorities
decided to take matters into their own hands and started a march
from Charleston to Mingo Count to free imprisoned miners there.
The shortest route lay through Logan County across Blair
In August of 1921, the
Logan County sheriff was Don Chafin, a strong supporter of the
coal companies who contributed to his political campaign.
With the financial
backing of the Logan County Coal Operators Association, Chafin
gathered about 2,000 men,
the nation's largest private armed force.
John L. Lewis, UMWA president at the time of the Coal
Bill Blizzard was the semi official leader of the miners. As he
marched, he gathered supporters. By august 29, ten thousand
miners had assembled to do battle. In order to recognize their
colleagues, the miners all wore red bandanas. Yes, this is where
the term "redneck" originated.
Both sides were heavily armed but Chafin's men and the
Baldwin-Felts men had the advantage of position and better
weapons. The battle ended when President Warren Harding sent
troops and airplanes to back the coal operators. This was the
only time in history the United States Air Force bombed American
citizens on American soil.
The Battle of Blair Mountain resulted in focusing the nation's
attention on the miners working conditions but really
accomplished little in the way of unionizing. Actually, union
enrollment fell until President Roosevelt's "New Deal."
By the most reliable sources, deaths are estimated at
about 16 men, 12 of which were miners. Other sources ranges as
high as 300 dead. Both sides tried to minimize their casualties
so accurate figures are difficult.
Over 900 people,
including Bill Blizzard, were arrested and charged with murder,
conspiracy to commit murder, treason against West Virginia and
various other crimes. As a side note, Sheriff
Chafin was arrested
several years later and found guilty of violating the Volstead
Act. He served time in federal prison for bootlegging.
One way to get up close
and personal with Blair Mountain is via the Hatfield and McCoy
ATV trail system. You can bring your ATV, get a permit and
explore the many trails ranging from easy to difficult. If you
do not have a ATV, there are various outfitters that will rent
you one. West Virginia will allow you to drive you ATV on
regular roads so that you can go into town and dine, stay
overnight or see the sights.
|ATVing on the mountains around
There is so much more to the story of the coal mines of West
Virginia and so many more interesting places to visit no one
article could tell it all. This is the first of a two part
article. This deals with the mining history of West Virginia.
The second one will show you the railroad history of the state.
Railroad and mines went hand in hand for obvious reasons. The
mines created the need for the railroads to transport the coal.
Without the mines, the railroads would not have been built.
Without the railroads, the rich coal found in West Virginia
could not have been transported to industrial markets.
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