MATEWAN — About 100 people gathered in the historic district of downtown Matewan Sunday evening for a guided walking tour that was part of the ongoing events around the region for the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
The tour was hosted by the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which is located in the town, and primarily led by Chuck Keeney, who serves on the board of the Mine Wars Museum, as vice president of Friends of Blair Mountain and as a professor at the Logan campus of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College.
Participants gathered to begin the tour near the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1440 building. Keeney led the way to the Tug River just outside the town’s floodwall, where he explained how the river got its name, early settlement in the town and several other topics such as the Hatfield-McCoy feud and coal mining in the area.
From there, participants were led back to the shelter area near the UMWA building, where Keeney explained more town history, delving deeper into the Battle of Matewan, which happened a year before Blair Mountain. Attendees were treated to a passionate re-enactment of a rallying speech by famous early 20th century labor and community organizer Mary G. Harris Jones.
Loretta Williams from the Mother Jones Museum in Illinois performed in sight of the Matewan United Methodist Church, where the real Mother Jones visited 100 years ago, according to Keeney.
After that, rain began to fall, and participants were taken inside the UMWA building, where four members of the local — Danny Whitt, Ronald Yates, Howard Phillips and Terry Steele — discussed their thoughts on the continued importance of unions in the United States.
The tour was cut a bit short from original plans due to the continued rain, but it concluded with participants lining under the awnings along the historic downtown buildings. Keeney delivered the remainder of his part of the tour from the street in the heart of the historic town.
Participants also heard from Wilma Steele, one of the retired founding board members of the Mine Wars Museum, and Brandon Dennison, founder and CEO of Coalfield Development, which purchased three historic structures known as the “Nenni” buildings in downtown Matewan in 2019.
At the conclusion, attendees were invited into the Mine Wars Museum for an art gallery called “I Come Creeping,” which is named after codewords used by miners during the Battle of Blair Mountain.
Mackenzie New Walker, director of the Mine Wars Museum, said the idea behind the tour was to provide a better understanding of some of the events that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
“One thing that we wanted to do is to bring folks to Matewan where the heart of this story is,” Walker said. “Just a year before (the Battle of Blair Mountain), there was the Battle of Matewan, one of the largest shootouts, and there were a lot of struggles to unionize, specifically in Mingo County, but also in McDowell County and Logan County ... a lot of history happened right here, so we wanted to bring folks to here to talk about, what was the lead-up to Blair Mountain? Why did it happen? What were some of the causes?”
Keeney said the tour provided those who attended a more intimate look at the historical town than books, films and other media.
“It’s important for people to come here and see the grittiness of the place — see the hills, hear the trains, get the flavor of the place,” Keeney said. “You can’t get that from a book. You can’t get that from a movie, so coming here and being in the atmosphere, being in the environment, is a way to make the history a lot more real. I wish that I could do the tour at Blair, maybe one day that will be possible, but until then, this is a great place for people to come and get a better understanding for what happened a hundred years ago.”
The tour attracted individuals from across the country and even from abroad. Keeney said he hopes to continue the tours.
“The huge turnout shows the potential that heritage tourism could bring,” Keeney said. “Matewan is out of the way — it’s far more out of the way than Logan — and people are here from all over America. There are people from Michigan, there’s somebody here from Australia. There are people here from Philadelphia, all over America … people have come all the way here just to hear these stories, and that shows that we have more potential here than just mining … that we can do other things to bring money in, to bring dollars in, and that’s significant.”
Those who attended were also encouraged to either become a member of the Mine Wars Museum or make a one-time donation. Walker said the museum is primarily funded by membership dues and currently has about 300 members.
Anyone interested in becoming a member may sign up for as little as $5 per month at www.wvminewars.org/join. A one-time annual donation may also be given, and that comes with specials such as a twice-per-year journal and free admission to the museum.
For more information about the remaining Blair 100 events, visit www.blair100.com.