MATEWAN, W.Va. (AP) — “Time is like a river,” according to author Kevin R. Hutson. “It flows in one direction. But with a little force, you can go back.”
Keith Gibson of Matewan provides the force needed — an airboat equipped with a supercharged 550-horsepower engine — to travel the Tug Fork River in speed and comfort and acquaint visitors with sites that were part of the landscape in the 19th-century Hatfield-McCoy Feud.
His Hatfield-McCoy Airboat Tours, up and running since June, also give passengers close-up looks at blue herons, kingfishers, mallards, Canada geese, turtles, beaver and other wildlife occupying the river, along with a goat that favors a rocky pillar towering over the stream.
A former surface miner, Gibson decided to stop riding out the booms and busts of the coal industry and take control of his own destiny — at the helm of a powerful aluminum-hulled airboat.
“With mining in decline and me not wanting to move because I’ve lived here my whole life, I decided to try something that combines my love of airboats and my love of the river with the history of the area,” Gibson said. “I bought the boat to try to create myself a job.”
Gibson and a brother bought an old airboat several years ago, and got acquainted with the joys of running it over the shoals and pools of the Tug Fork, which carves out the West Virginia-Kentucky border in this part of the world.
“We got rid of that boat and, last August, I bought this one, which is a lot better,” he said. “It’s built by Diamondback, one of the best airboat makers in the world. It’s got an LS6 engine, the same kind that’s used in a Corvette. The way it’s set up now, it can go 55 miles an hour,” although touring speed is generally about 35 mph.
Gibson had planned to begin offering the tours last summer, after Kevin Costner’s “Hatfields & McCoys” miniseries aired on The History Channel.
“We got a burst of tourism in the area after that show appeared,” he said. But the arrival of premature twin daughters put that plan on hold until their health crisis passed.
“Now I’m hoping we get another burst of tourism from the History Channel’s ‘Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning,’” Gibson said. “The locals don’t like it much because it doesn’t show the area and its people in a very favorable light, but it’s fifth in the ratings, so it could interest more folks in coming here.”
Interest generated by the Kevin Costner series on the famed feuding families prompted Canadians Chuck and Lynn Maier of Sudbury, Ontario, to swing through Hatfield-McCoy country during a two-week driving tour of the United States.
After clicking “things to do” at a Hatfield-McCoy country tourism website, the Matewan Depot Welcome Center and Museum popped up, and the Maiers decided to add it to their itinerary.
Late last month, while visiting the depot, which contains exhibits on the Matewan massacre, the Hatfield-McCoy feud and the area’s mining history, the Maiers spotted a flyer for Hatfield-McCoy Airboat Rides. Interested, having taken airboat rides previously in Florida and Louisiana, the Maiers contacted Gibson. A few minutes later, they were boarding the airboat and figuring out the controls to the headsets issued to passengers, allowing them to communicate over the roar of the watercraft’s powerful engine.
Gibson began the tour heading downstream from Matewan, roaring past forest, farms, homes and the suspension bridge carrying golfers at Tug Valley Country Club at Sprigg across the Tug River.
“As far as I know,” Gibson said, “it’s the only golf course in the country where you can hit a ball from a tee in one state to a green in another state.”
Not far from the golf course bridge, sandy Burnwell Beach appears on the Kentucky shore, a short distance from the site of the home of Roseanna McCoy’s Aunt Betty. “It’s where Roseanna went (in 1881) to have Johnse Hatfield’s baby,” Gibson said.
It’s also the site where, much more recently, a character in “Hatfields & McCoys: White Lightning” series had vehicle trouble and required the services of a tow truck, Gibson said.
Heading upstream, Gibson brought his boat to a stop near the Kentucky side of the river across from Matewan, and pointed to a grove of trees on a shoreline slope.
It was here, in 1882, that Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph McCoy Jr. were tied to paw-paw trees and executed by a gun-wielding group of Hatfields. The shooting deaths were in retaliation for the three McCoys’ roles in the stabbing death of Ellison Hatfield, brother of feud family patriarch William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield.
A short distance upstream, on the West Virginia side of the river, a woman and the baby she was holding waved from a front porch as the airboat passed by.
“The mom told me the baby loves to see the boat, and crawls to the door when she hears the boat coming,” Gibson said.
The airboat zips through grassy shoals and mild rapids as it makes its way up and down the Tug Fork between the steep, wooded hillsides that encompass it.
“I love this river — except for when it’s running through my house,” joked Gibson, who now lives out of the floodplain of the flood-prone stream. “We see wildlife every time we go out, and it’s the state’s best-kept secret for bass fishing.”
“It was a great ride — very scenic,” said Lynn Maier, after exiting the boat at the end of the tour. “It was better than the airboat rides we’ve been on in Florida and Louisiana.”
Based out of the Matewan Depot, near the bridge in downtown Matewan, Gibson offers rides on a regular basis Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tours also can be arranged by appointment on Sunday afternoons and Mondays. Groups of three or more are encouraged. The boat carries a maximum of six passengers per tour. For 20-minute tours, the cost is $20 per person, or $40 for 40-minute tours.
For reservations and more information, call 304-928-7702, or visit the Hatfield McCoy Airboat Tours’ Facebook page.