The mountains of southern West Virginia are riddled with coal—and bullets
The gunfight in downtown Matewan on May 19, 1920, had all the elements of a high-noon showdown: on one side, the heroes, a pro-union sheriff and mayor; on the other, the dastardly henchmen of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. Within 15 minutes, ten people were dead—seven detectives, two miners and the mayor.
Three months later, the conflict in the West Virginia coal town had escalated to the point where martial law was declared and federal troops had to intervene. The showdown may sound almost cinematic, but the reality of the coal miners’ armed standoffs throughout the early 20th century was much darker and more complicated.
Then, as now, West Virginia was coal country. The coal industry was essentially the state’s sole source of work, and massive corporations built homes, general stores, schools, churches and recreational facilities in the remote towns near the mines. For miners, the system resembled something like feudalism.
Sanitary and living conditions in the company houses were abysmal, wages were low, and state politicians supported wealthy coal company owners rather than miners. The problems persisted for decades and only began to improve once Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933.
As labor historian Hoyt N. Wheeler writes, “Firing men for union activities, beating and arresting union organizers, increasing wages to stall the union’s organizational drive, and a systematic campaign of terror produced an atmosphere in which violence was inevitable.” The mine guards of Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency repeatedly shut down miners’ attempts at unionization with everything from drive-by assaults of striking miners to forcing men, women and children out of their homes.
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