Material Marvels: Matewan, West Virginia

Materials World magazine
19 Dec 2018

The unassuming town of Matewan was the site of the Matewan Massacre and catalyst of the second West Virginia mine war. Khai Trung Le takes a look at the history of the town, and the impact on miners today.

The town of Matewan is situated in southern West Virginia, USA, located at the meeting point of the Tug Fork River and Mate Creek in Mingo County. According to the 2016 US Decennial Census, the town has had a population of below 500 for over two decades, and the estimated median household income in 2016 was US$13,711 – well under the state average by US$29,674. Noteworthy historic moments of the town include a feud over the ownership of pigs which resulted in one
of the most renowned rivalries in American history and bloodshed across two decades. Matewan may be the least physically imposing and impressive Material Marvel Materials World has profiled, yet it is of undoubted importance.

But coal, then and now, defines West Virginia, and Matewan is the site of one of the most violent labour disputes in USA coal history. On 19 May 1920, private detectives, sent by the Stone Mountain Coal Company, evicted miners from company housing, and 10 people were killed in a shootout in the streets later that day. The conflict escalated.

In the year that followed, the vast majority of Mingo County miners joined the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, martial law was imposed several times, and pro-union Police Chief and principle participant of the Matewan Massacre, Sid Hatfield, was assassinated.

Many historians see Matewan as the catalyst to the second West Virginia mine war. But others view the battle as the inevitable culmination of decades of systematic labour abuse that stretched back before World War I, and perhaps lasting to the present day.

A man killed could be replaced

Coal has been the dominant source of work and defining character of West Virginia for decades. Coal is believed to have been mined in the state as early as 1810. However, prosperity would come with the railroads in the 1870s, and as the industry expanded in the 1900s, coal companies constructed camps and towns to house the influx of workers. But the vast growth in commercialisation also brought corruption, land grabs, and enduring poverty for many in the state.

Company owners kept salaries and housing conditions notoriously low. Many workers were paid in scrip only redeemable at company stores rather than a federally recognised currency, allowing coal companies to set unfair prices for goods and keep the workforce under control. Brandon DiGregorio, then-Editor of the Earlham Historic Journal, quotes an elderly miner in his paper, Company-owned Americans: militant unionism and the merging of corporation and state in southern West Virginia 1900–1925, published by Earlham College, USA, as saying, ‘You didn’t even own your own soul in those damnable places. The company owned everything – the houses, the schools, churches, the stores – everything’. By 1920, between 70–90% of Appalachia’s mineral rights and more than half of privately held land was owned by corporate interests.

However, more damning was the negligent attitude of working conditions and mine safety, to often-fatal consequence. Terry Steele, a former coal miner and West Virginia UMWA member, told the Smithsonian, ‘If you got a mule killed in the mines and you were in charge, you could lose your job over it. If you got a man killed, he could be replaced.’ The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) estimates that around 95,000 miners died in West Virginian mines between 1900-1950, and tens of thousands more were permanently maimed or contracted pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung. A document from the West Virginia State Archives, West Virginia’s Mine Wars, cites an unnamed historian who suggested that an American soldier had a better statistical chance of surviving a battle in World War I than a West Virginian did in the coal mines.

Solidarity forever

Coal companies in southern West Virginia were unbalanced by the prospects of unionisation. Louis Martin, Associate Professor of History at Chatham University, USA, and co-founder of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, told Materials World, ‘Unlike the oldest centres of American mining – Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and, to some extent, Indiana – coal operators in central Appalachia believed low wages were central to remaining profitable. Whereas the northern operators thought having standardised wages was the key to success and cooperated, to a degree, with the UMWA.’ With the support of some northern companies, the UMWA tried to establish a national wage agreement in 1897, but West Virginian operators began hiring private detectives, otherwise known as mine guards, in 1902 to suffocate attempts at unionising.

Regardless, the UMWA initiated a unionisation drive and strike in central Appalachia in 1919 that was met with open hostility. State politicians allied with the coal operators, declared martial law, and the West Virginia National Guard and newly formed West Virginia State Police were brought in to break the strike.

Tensions boiled. Hoyt Wheeler, Professor of Management and Industrial Relations at the University of South Carolina, USA, wrote in Mountaineer mine wars: an analysis of the West Virginia mine wars of 1912-1913 and 1920-1921, ‘Firing men for union activities, beating and arresting union organisers, increasing wages to stall the union’s organisational drive, and a systematic campaign of terror produced an atmosphere in which violence was inevitable’.

Battle of Matewan

On the morning of 19 May 1920, Deputy Sheriff Albert Felts and 12 men from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency evicted men from company housing, where he had a volatile exchange with pro-union Police Chief Sid Hatfield. An untitled and unattributed article distributed by the Logan County Coal Operators Association Collection claims Hatfield as the aggressor, stating he conducted himself in ‘a threatening manner’, whereas Martin noted there was an exchange of threats, and that Albert Felts had boasted of his prowess in firefights and threatened to kill anyone who interfered. The evictions proceeded, but Felts backed down from the exchange.

Accounts continue to vary, with the Logan Coal Operators document claiming Hatfield gathered men to accost Albert Felts and his 14-strong retinue at the railroad later that day, whereas Martin told Materials World that Felts had egressed from their earlier conflict to collect reinforcements. In either telling, Felts produced an arrest warrant for Hatfield, threatening to take him to another county. This was inspected by the passing Mayor, Cabell Testerman, and the Logan Coal Operators document claims, ‘Sid Hatfield stuck his revolver up within a few inches of the head of Albert Felts and shot him. Thereupon, the shooting at Mr Felts’ men became general, several hundred shots being fired’. Martin contests this version, stating that the most widely accepted account is that the mayor was struck first by an unknown assailant.

Martin continued, ‘The focus on who shot first ignores the escalation to violence that had been happening for a decade. I think a sneeze at the wrong time would have set off the battle.’

The gunfight spread across the entire town. Testerman and two miners were killed, along with Albert Felts, his brother Lee, and five of their men.

Following the Matewan Massacre, as it would become known, over 90% of miners in Mingo County joined the UMWA, galvanised by Hatfield’s actions. Martin said, ‘Hatfield was one of the first law enforcement agents that stood up to the Baldwin-Felts agents, and this was inspiring to the miners. Before that, many felt there was no point in joining the union because of the powerful forces lined against them.’ Hatfield was celebrated as a local hero, but the Felts family pursued legal action. Hatfield and his deputy, Ed Chambers, were assassinated on the stairway of the courthouse in August 1921.

Hatfield’s death made him a martyr. Around 10,000 miners began an assault on the coal company, beginning the 10-day Battle of Blair Mountain and the largest armed insurrection in the USA since the Civil War. With the intervention of USA President Warren Harding providing federal troops and a bomber squadron, the Battle of Blair Mountain would bring the second West Virginia mine war to a close. The miners lost, the UMWA went into sharp decline, and the northern mine operators gave up on the national wage and refused to sign contracts. Labour conditions and the disputes between coal companies and workforces would only begin to improve years later, when President Franklin Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933.

Trump County

Miner deaths are not confined to the past. On 5 April 2010, 29 miners were killed in an explosion at the Massey Energy-owned Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. According to the MSHA, the accident was the direct result of safety violations, and five years later former CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was convicted of conspiracy to wilfully violate mine health and safety standards. It is considered the worst mining accident in the USA since 1970. USA news agency PRI reported that Upper Big Branch had an extensive history of safety violations, with as many as 1,100 between 2007–2010, and that federal regulators ordered parts of the mine to be closed 60 times between 2009–2010. After a year in a federal prison, Blankenship would go on to run for US Senate in 2018, foisted by a late intervention by now-President Donald Trump.

Adding to the bleak records, two miners were killed in separate incidents within a two-week period at Pocahontas Coal Company-owned Affinity mine in southern West Virginia in February 2013, and the MSHA, under the Obama Administration, declared the mine as having Pattern of Violations (PoV) status. However, in 2018, the MSHA decided to remove the PoV status from Affinity, despite a continued record of poor safety performance, and the UMWA began legal proceedings against the MSHA in December 2018.

Looking back, we see that the conflict between individualism and collectivism in the USA did not end with Matewan and the West Virginia mine wars. According to Martin, the coal operators saw their actions as bringing civilisation and progress to the mountains, and viewed union members as dangerous radicals trying to undermine that progress. Nowadays, pro-mining parties realise they can garner greater support by being vocal about the need for safety and worker security, even if this lacks specifics – United Coal Company, parent company of Pocahontas, supported the PoV removal, claiming the Affinity site had greatly increased its safety record. And Trump successfully campaigned in central Appalachia – a region with a firm record of voting Democrat until 2008, and has since been given the nickname Trump County – with a promise to bring work back to the miners, although decisions from his administration reveal his position on worker safety and security, including the reversal of executive orders that protect workers from wage theft and require companies to disclose past violations of labour laws or safety regulations when bidding for federal contracts.

Others are simply less convinced. As James Green, author of The Devil is here in these hills, wrote, ‘Thousands of miners will continue to work without the protection of a union contract in mines where productivity trumps safety. They will have only their bosses’ good faith and federal safety regulations to rely upon. History tells us that won’t be enough.’