The road and the railroad are entwined, crossing and recrossing each other as they snake through Hatfield Bottom where the mountain tapers into the Tug River.
A long black line of coal cars rattles across the two-lane route, clotting it with diesel trucks brimming with bituminous. For almost a century they have rumbled in and out of this hollow, the engines of mortal prosperity.
Before the coming of the coal barons this was Hatfield and McCoy territory. A historical marker on Route 49 tells how three of the McCoy boys stabbed Ellison Hatfield during a drunken Election Day brawl in 1882. The boys were later tied to a papaw bush and shot.
Most of what people know about the Tug Valley has to do with coal or killing. Sometimes the former has caused the latter, but that is less well understood.
Close to the Highway
Dave and Joyce Phillips live in the Bottom. Theirs is a one-story yellow house with brown trim. Like many of the homes in this part of the state, it sits close to the highway. When the big trucks whoosh by, you want to curl in your toes.
On an autumn morning, the first weekend of squirrel season, the oldest Phillips boy, William David, 13, has gone upstate hunting with his grandfather. The youngest, Adam Michael, 4, is asleep beneath a blanket at his mother's feet.
He'll stay with a baby-sitter tonight while his parents drive to Charleston for the West Virginia premiere of the recent John Sayles movie that bears their town's name.
Joyce has warmed a tin of cinnamon rolls and brought out some cold cans of Coke. The Phillipses are telling stories about themselves, but the stories begin decades before they were born.
Company Owned Town
"The coal company owned the houses the miners lived in," Dave Phillips says. "They owned the preacher. They told the preacher what to preach. He couldn't preach against capitalism, what have you. They owned the family doctor. They owned the store. It was more or less, 'I own you. You do what I say.' That's how it was back when it first started. That's the way they want it back, I believe."
"I heard my grandmother talk about living in tents and how they (coal company detectives) put kerosene in the milk," Joyce Phillips says. "But I never thought I'd be involved in anything like this."
On Oct. 1, 1984, the United Mine Workers struck the A.T. Massey Coal Co., which employed about 1,100 men in eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Dave Phillips has not worked since. After 15 months of angry confrontation, the union called an end to the strike, but fewer than half the strikers were called back. The company refused to rehire anyone who they claim promoted violence during the walkout. That included the union leadership. That included Phillips.
"It's like history repeating itself is what it's been," he says.
The history of Mingo and the surrounding counties is a secret the state's leaders seem intent on keeping. The bloodiest struggle in American labor history took place here in 1920-21 as thousands of miners fought unsuccessfully for their right to unionize.
But generations of West Virginians have left school knowing nothing of the Matewan Massacre or the Coal Wars that followed.
Slowly, though, this is changing. Sayles' engrossing film is a lightly fictionalized version of the events that led up to the massacre. Denise Giardina's moving novel "Storming Heaven" carries the story through to the Battle of Blair Mountain. There, four battalions of federal troops were called in before an army of 10,000 miners agreed to lay down its arms.
Phillips has heard that the movie is terrific, but he's reserving judgment. No one who said so grew up in Matewan with the story as familiar as his grandfather's voice. No one who said so feels trapped in a modern-day sequel.
Three years ago, in the early days of the Massey strike, the miners marched down Route 49 from the business district to the mines. They carried the flag and wore red, white and blue patches stitched into their sleeves. They held picnics and church services across the street from the Sprouse Creek processing plant. The atmosphere was almost festive. The company let strikers use its parking lot and its bathrooms.
"Just before the time of the strike, they had a dinner down at the steak house down in Williamson, and they told us that our mine led the nation in tons per man," Phillips says. "All these mines produced good coal, good work records. The men kept their noses clean, did their jobs, and they worked safe."
A.T. Massey, the nation's eighth-largest coal producer, was the only major company not to sign the 1984 agreement with the UMW. Massey officials argued that each of its subsidiaries was separate and should sign its own labor agreement. Miners saw this as a threat to job security. The company could close a unionized subsidiary, open a non-unionized one and not give union miners their jobs back.
"When the strike started, everything was peaceful and everybody figured at the most probably three months," Phillips says. "Guys were pitching horseshoes on some of the (picketing) sites, playing rummy and what have you. Everything was peaceful until they brought the guards in."
That happened when the strike was 2 months old and the company decided to reopen the mines. "Essentially, the reason violence came about is we started to run coal," says Don Blankenship, the highest-ranking Massey official in the area. "As long as we didn't run coal, there was horseshoe pitching, and when we started to run there was rock throwing."
Shortly after the company called in security guards and strikebreakers, James Slater, superintendent of the Sprouse Creek processing plant, was pulled from his car, beaten and thrown into the river by a group of masked men.
Blankenship says Slater was just one of a score of people who were beaten, threatened or had their cars or trucks destroyed. "I had 11 bullet holes in my office and had a lot of people beaten up, and we couldn't do our business," he says.
The presence of a small army of company guards kept the community on edge. "We had several union people's homes shot into," Phillips says. "The guards followed you to town. Follow you everywhere you go. The superintendent at Sprouse Creek even took his guards to church with him."
The guards slept in barracks on company property, erected towers on which they installed video cameras, carried automatic weapons and patrolled the hills using guard dogs and helicopters.
"If there was no one around, just them and us, they'd come down, and they'd talk," Phillips says. "They'd say, 'I took your wife out last night, your daughter.' And the company would give them background on your family so they would know your wife's name, your kid's name.
"They tried to intimidate us. They'd put cameras up and get you under a big spotlight, and then they'd go down with the purpose of getting you to start a fight. And then they'd have that right on film, but it doesn't show them harassing you."
By mid-January those films had convinced Elliot Maynard, a local judge, that a limit should be placed on the number of pickets at each site. The decision, rendered by a man whose son worked for another Massey subsidiary, angered the union.
In February miners and their families began human blockades, lying down in the middle of Route 49 to stop coal trucks driven by strikebreakers. Between Oct. 1 and March 16, 300 were arrested, about half of them miners involved in nonviolent protests.
The strike eventually affected the lives of almost everyone along Route 49. The post office for the town of Lobata was in a building owned by the Massey Co. that sat just inside the company's gates.
"They made you check in to go into the post office," Joyce Phillips says. "Post office customers had to show them ID or tell them who they were. And if you weren't from that area, you couldn't use that post office. They finally had to move it."
After the court threatened to fine the union if human roadblocks continued, the miners turned to more substantial barricades. Using cars and pickups, they turned the highway into a tight serpentine trail through which a coal truck could not pass.
But the drivers, many of them frightened by what had happened to Slater, smashed through the blockades. Several miners were hurt when their cars were run off the road. Truck drivers reported being bombed with ball bearings and paint balloons.
In April, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Massey's subsidiaries constitute one company and should negotiate a single contract. But negotiations went nowhere.
By May most coal drivers were wearing bulletproof vests. One who wasn't was Hayes West, a non-union driver running coal for a Canadian firm. On May 29 he was fatally wounded. Five men, including a local union president, have been indicted for the murder. Massey officials broke off negotiations.
Coal City NAPA Auto Parts. The Flower Pot. Bass Sporting Goods. A video store. Matewan is a typical small-town business district, perhaps a bit colder architecturally and a bit more compact. "Russia about to move militarily in Mid East as prophesied," says a sign atop a rusty pickup that coasts down the street.
When the train stopped here, all these shops faced the tracks. Now the old doors and windows are bricked over and the shops face the street. The sidewalks out front run at shoulder height across what used to be loading docks.
There is no historical marker on the railroad tracks and the depot is gone, so it is difficult to tell where the shooting started. It could have happened near the trailer that houses the Matewan Public Library or the one beside it where they hold the Head Start program.
It is difficult to imagine men ducking for cover in the doorway of the Little Venice Pizza Parlor or dying on the stoop of Til's Tanning Salon. But this is the spot.
Somewhere on these tracks on the afternoon of May 19, 1920, the Matewan Massacre took place. The shoot-out touched off the West Virginia Coal Wars, but the fuse had been burning a long time.
Geology is destiny here. After huge seams of bituminous coal were discovered, speculators swarmed in to buy, steal or con people out of their land. The displaced soon found themselves in coal mines where the work was difficult and dangerous. West Virginia lost more miners in accidents each year than the nation lost in the Spanish-American War.
Because the mines were isolated deep in mountain hollows, the coal companies had to build entire towns. The operators provided food, shelter, clothing and medical care. They set wages and prices.
Even in 1920, two decades after the UMW had won the eight-hour day, southern West Virginia remained an anti-union stronghold. Union President John L. Lewis sent a steady stream of organizers into Mingo, McDowell and Logan counties, but the coal operators drove them out. Some were murdered.
Thrown Into Furnace
While researching "Storming Heaven," Denise Giardina heard stories of a union man who was thrown, still kicking, into an enormous furnace. Nonetheless, meeting in secret, the miners formed a union. In the spring of 1920, they called a strike in Mingo and McDowell counties.
The coal operators hired agents from the Baldwin Felts detective agency in Bluefield, W.Va., to throw miners out of company housing and patrol the streets of company towns. On the day of the shoot-out, approximately a dozen agents stepped off a train in Matewan.
As the detectives stood at the depot, they were approached by Sid Hatfield, the chief of police, Cable Testerman, the mayor, and several striking miners. It is not clear who fired first, but the miners were clearly ready for trouble. Guns flared from storefronts and second-story windows.
When the shooting was over, seven detectives and three townsmen, including the mayor, were dead. Within weeks, 90% of the miners in Mingo County joined the union. Sid Hatfield was a hero.
In January, 1921, Hatfield and local storekeeper Ed Chambers were acquitted of murder by a Mingo County jury. But later that year the two men were summoned to face unrelated charges at the McDowell County Courthouse in Welch.
On Aug. 1, they walked to the courthouse, arm in arm with their wives. At the top of the stairs, three Baldwin Felts agents opened fire on the unarmed men. Witnesses say Hatfield caught as many as 15 bullets. Their wives were unscathed.
Rain fell the day that Hatfield and Chambers were buried. Observers say it is still the largest funeral the county has ever seen. In his graveside eulogy, a UMW lawyer asked, "Is it any wonder that even the heavens weep?"
"Even the Heavens Weep" is the title of a documentary on the mine wars produced by WPBY, a public television station in Huntington. When the program was aired during the Massey strike, the company tried to get an injunction to suppress it.
In retrospect, the union men here think Massey and its parent companies--Flour and Royal Dutch-Shell--marked 1984 as the year they'd try to break the union. The circumstances were on their side.
Employment in the coal fields has been dropping for almost a decade since the boom caused by the energy crisis petered out. Energy companies are mining more bituminous than ever, but new machinery lets them do it with fewer people.
For Blankenship, it was not a struggle that pitted the union against a pair of multinational corporations. It was him and a hardy band of local managers against a nationwide union.
"I'm ready to be killed for this reason," he says. "I had uncles and cousins who fought in the world wars. We don't view it as any different. The UMW is trying to take away our freedom. We don't have any love for the union. I firmly believe they tried to kill us on several occasions."
As the strike wore on, the company benefited from workers' despair. Plenty of miners, particularly younger ones, were willing to work in non-union mines.
"I disown them," Dave Phillips says. "They are taking bread off our children's tables."
In Mingo County, there are a limited number of ways to earn that bread. Absentee landowners hold 70% of the land, 90% of the mineral rights. "If you don't work for Massey or the railroad," Phillips says, "you don't work."
Still, most of Mingo County stood behind the strikers. The Matewan National Bank has been lenient on calling in loans and mortgages. Doctors and dentists have forgotten to send bills. The grocery stores donate food to the union. That is not to say that the strike pulled this community together.
"It has separated families," Joyce Phillips says. "Because there's members of families that went scabbing. It's divided families, churches, everything."
"You got a church right up the road got a scab preacher," her husband says. "Gets on the pulpit, says, 'The Bible says to provide for a living for your family.' But he doesn't go one step further. He doesn't say that the Bible says, 'Have faith the grain of a mustard seed and He will provide.' The preacher doesn't read that out. And he was one of us. He was one of our truck drivers."
In the schools the community's divisions become obvious at lunch. Union children sit at one table, company kids at another, the children of strikebreakers at a third.
"It was difficult on the ball teams," Joyce Phillips says.
Slate of Candidates
In the summer of 1985 the UMW called a meeting to plan strategy for the upcoming election. Union leaders figured that, working on behalf of the proper candidates, an army of unemployed miners might make an impressive electoral machine. Their slate included state assembly candidates Mike Whitt and Jim Reid, who used to work the coal tipple at Sprouse Creek.
"Every morning we were in some holler and we knocked on every door in that holler," union leader Bill Davis says. "And I'd go in and sit down and I'd spend sometimes an hour in a house. I'd show them my slate and I'd say, 'If there's anybody on here you have any problems with, let's talk about it.' "
On Election Day 66% of Mingo County's voters turned out, an extremely high figure for a local election. The entire union slate--from state senator to town council--was elected by comfortable margins.
The Phillipses worked hard for the union slate. But they are realistic about what local officials can accomplish.
Dealing With Corporations
"I think our problem in this strike is that we aren't dealing with the companies anymore; we're dealing with corporations," Joyce Phillips says.
Her conclusion is echoed by the Appalachian Land Ownership Study, an exhaustive research document prepared in 1980 by a coalition of grass-roots activists. The study proposes a radical solution: land reform. "For too long the U.S. government has been an advocate of land reform in the Third World countries while ignoring the urgent need for land reform in the rural areas of this country," it states.
People who were born and reared here have suggested that this is a Third World country too.
The miner on screen drills a bore hole, packs his powder and coughs a coal-dust cough. The men in the audience cough too. The UMW bought most of the tickets for the local premiere of "Matewan." Now miners from all over the state have gathered to see whether Sayles got it right.
"When do we get to Matewan?" the movie's hero asks.
"You don't want to get off there, Mister," the conductor says. "It ain't nothing but crazy people."
Dave Phillips laughs along with everybody else. The movie has captured his affection. This is the truth the way he's heard it.
Sid Hatfield is alive when the film ends, though the narrator explains what is about to happen. He never mentions Blair Mountain.
The 10,000 miners who stormed the mountain were bent on marching through Logan County to bring their union to Mingo and McDowell. When President Harding sent in troops, the miners thought the government had intervened on their behalf. They were wrong.
Between 1920 and 1925 50,000 miners were evicted or locked out during strikes. Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House when the union finally came to Mingo County.
Today the mountain is the site of a forest fire observation center. The only memorial is to a team of rangers who scrawled their names into wet cement about 20 years ago. At the bottom of a dirt trail that leads to the highway, a green hand-lettered sign hangs on a tree. "Blair Mountain. Site of Miners Battle. August 1921."
Dave Phillips is disturbed by how quickly the struggles of the past can be absorbed into the landscape. Life goes on, except for his.
"I don't want to go back (to work), really," he says, "but I have no choice. Massey owns everything from Logan County, Mingo County, Pike County (Ky.). Gosh, most all of it. And they are putting in a number of mines right now. There will be 2,500 new jobs in the next couple years, and they'll make them non-union."