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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.

fall foliage in the appalachian mountains in West Virginia
Mountain foliage is gorgeous in the fall in West Virginia
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 a mine.

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.

As the War 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.


Goodwill House in Branwell, WV.
The Goodwill House often refered to as "The Blue Lady" in Bramwell.
 Photo credit Mercer County Visitors and Convention Bureau 
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 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.


Miner displayus mine work inside a mine in Berkley's Exibition Mine
Deep inside a mine, our guide, Roger, explains the work of a miner.
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.  

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 round.

supertendent's house  in Berkley's Exibition Mine
The superintendent's house is a mini-mansion.
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 face."

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."

miner's stature  in Berkley's Exibition Mine
Miner stature at the Exibition Coal Mine
dedicated to West Virginia's coal miners
Beatrice spoke with the voice of authority. She was a miner's daughter.

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, West Virginia.

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 Beckley.

New River Gorge Bridge in Fayettville, WV
The New River Gorge Bridge is a engineering marvel

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.

Coal House built entirely of coal in Williamson, WV
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 (see article), the two things that usually bring visitors to Williamson.

Matewan Depot Musuem in Matewan, WV
The Matewan Depot Musuem is filled with
 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 museum 

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.

map of a coal town in West Virginia
A map of the typical coal town
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. 

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 River area.

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
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 free breakfast.

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 Mountain.

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 simulated mine.

display board about the Matewan Massacre in Matewan Depot Musuem
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 Mountain.

Picture of John L. Lewis, UMWA president at the time of Coal Wars
John L. Lewis, UMWA president at the time of the Coal Wars
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.

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.

ATV on Hatfield Mccoy Trail in West Virginia
ATVing on the mountains around Logan County
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.

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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