Some of the bloodiest and most important moments in the American labor movement happened in the coalfields of southern West Virginia. But most who live beyond its rugged mountains, and even many who live in them, don’t know the stories.
Doug Estepp is trying to change that, one busload of tourists at a time.
Estepp grew up in a coal- mining family in Mingo County but never heard much about the early 20th century “mine wars” as a child.
The term covers many events in the long, violent struggle to unionize: a deadly gunfight on the streets of Matewan; the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War in the woods above Blair; the firing of machine guns from an armor-plated train on striking miners and their families in the Holly Grove tent colony.
Estepp set out this past summer to tell the tales. With no experience in the tour-bus industry, he took 80 people on two inaugural trips to prove that a region perhaps best known for mine disasters could become West Virginia’s next big destination.
Estepp, a full-time employee of the U.S. Treasury in Martinsburg, made enough money to break even, and he’s expanding in 2012 with six trips.
His tour stops show everything from the squalor of company-run camps to coal barons’ mansions.
He’s also taking his customers’ advice and expanding the trips to four days, allowing more time to visit with active and retired miners and the people who re-enact the Matewan Massacre.
Donna May Paterino, who has led the 30-member Matewan re-enactment troupe for 11 seasons, says Estepp’s tours helped her put on 12 street theater shows this year, more than ever before.
The battle of Matewan occurred May 19, 1920, between the skilled marksmen of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency and striking miners, some armed with guns from the previous century. Twelve men died.
“The miners had no rights,” Paterino says. “Their backs were strong, but the coal operators thought their minds were weak.”
They’d been abused and exploited, paid in company scrip, forced to live in company housing and shop in company stores. Their lives were controlled, their work conditions dangerous, their labor never-ending.
And so they fought for what was then unthinkable. They wanted to be paid by the hour, not the ton. They wanted a week that lasted five days, not seven. They wanted black miners and white miners to be paid equally.
The shootout, depicted in the 1987 John Sayles film “Matewan,” was a precursor to the 1921 battle of Blair Mountain, when armed miners clashed with law enforcement officers and hired guns who had fortified pickets, protective trenches, homemade bombs and machine guns.
At least 16 men died in that battle before the miners surrendered to federal troops.
Estepp says his clients always have the same question: “Why haven’t we heard this before?”
The mine wars, he says, weren’t taught in West Virginia schools or included in textbooks.
For generations after the battles, “a lot of folks on both sides just simply wouldn’t talk about it,” he says. “They didn’t want to bring up hard feelings.”
Things only began to change after the release of the movie, which was actually shot in the Fayette County town of Thurmond.
Eleanore Hofstetter of Baltimore took one of Estepp’s first tours with a friend. “We very much enjoyed it,” she said. “It was tremendously educational; we didn’t know anything about the coal country wars.”
She even loved the accommodations in state park lodges: “They’re almost like luxury resorts.”
Estepp, who studied the conflicts as a student at West Virginia University and graduated with a degree in history, is “electrifying” in his enthusiasm, says Marie Blackwell, head of the Mercer County Convention & Visitors Bureau in Princeton. “His possibilities are endless.”
Two years ago, the visitors’ bureau was in a branding crisis.
The area doesn’t have the same outdoor offerings as counties that capitalize on whitewater rafting, scenic gorges and rock climbing. So Blackwell tested a new theme, “Discover America’s Coal Story,” at a convention in Columbus. People snatched up brochures and offered to buy the coal figurines she’d brought along.
Blackwell called her staff.
“We’re coal and railroads,” she told them. “That’s what people are after, and that needs to be our branding.”
“It’s not whether you should or should not mine coal,” she says. “We’re sharing the stories of how the people have lived and worked, what their lives have been like.”
One of Estepp’s first stops is the Whipple Company Store in Scarbro, built in 1890 by Justus Collins, who came up with the idea of using Baldwin-Felts men to break strikes and ran his camp like a prison.
Now privately owned, the store has been preserved and turned into a museum. It features a hand-operated freight elevator, post office, switchboard station, two walk-in safes and a secret second floor.
It sets the tone, Estepp says, helping people understand the gap between the men who ran the companies and the laborers who kept them in business.
“We really try to explain each site and how it relates to the next one and the previous one,” he says.
Estepp has already branched out to include three Hatfield & McCoy Tours next year, exploring the feud between the legendary families from Kentucky and West Virginia.
If his second year proves successful, Estepp may add even more stops to the Mine War Tour, including the courthouse in Welch where Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield was assassinated the year after the gunfight.
He’s already got a few reservations.