May 19, 1920 Matewan West Virginia


Doesn’t look like much does it? Just another dead coal town in West Virginia. That’s what it is but something pretty significant happened there 100 years ago tomorrow. If not for the Wuhan Plague, this would be a big event. I drove the 20 minutes to the town and took these pictures myself. On May 19th, 1920 a firefight took place that you may have heard of. They even made a movie about it back in the 1980s.

The spring of 1920 was a troubled time in the West Virginia coalfields. A nationwide coal strike settled during the winter had won unionized miners a 27 percent wage increase. Unfortunately, the settlement didn’t help most miners in southern West Virginia, the largest non-unionized coal region in the country.

When the United Mine Workers (UMW) stepped up its campaign to organize Logan, Mingo, and McDowell counties, coal operators retaliated by hiring private detectives to quash all union activity. Miners who joined the UMW were fired and thrown out of their company-owned houses.

Despite the risks, thousands defied the coal operators and joined the UMW. Tensions between the two sides exploded into violence on May 19, when 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives arrived in Matewan to evict union miners from houses owned by the Stone Mountain Coal Company. Matewan chief of police Sid Hatfield intervened on behalf of the evicted families. A native of the Tug River Valley, Sid Hatfield supported the miners’ attempts to organize. He was also known throughout Mingo County as a man who was not afraid of a fight. After carrying out several evictions, the detectives ate dinner at the Urias Hotel then walked to the depot to catch the five o’clock train back to Bluefield, Virginia. They were intercepted by Hatfield, who claimed to have arrest warrants from the county sheriff. Detective Albert Felts produced a warrant for Hatfield’s arrest, which Matewan mayor C. C. Testerman claimed to be a fake. The detectives didn’t know they had been surrounded by armed miners, who watched intently from windows and doorways along Mate Street and, while Felts, Hatfield, and Testerman, faced off, a shot rang out. The ensuing gun battle left 7 detectives and 4 townspeople dead, including Felts and Testerman.

Above is a picture of post office wall that still has bullet holes in it from the firefight. Those are not bullets in the brick but rods drove in to seal up the holes.

Hatfield became a local hero and was eventually acquitted of murder charges for his part in the “Matewan Massacre.” But in the summer of 1921, Hatfield and an associate, Ed Chambers, were shot dead by Baldwin-Felts detectives on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse, where they were to stand trial for a shooting in a nearby coal camp. Their murders galvanized thousands of union miners, who planned to march on Logan County. The march ended with the Battle of Blair Mountain, in which state and federal troops defeated the miners and halted the UMW’s campaign in southern West Virginia. Most of the southern coalfields remained non-union until 1933.

The above text was extracted from the WV Department of Culture and History Website.

You may recall I have talked about Blair Mountain in the past. My Mentor Brady was asked by the state to identify empty rifle cases and various things found there. Sorry to say Blair mountain no longer even exists. Stripped mined down to nothing by a coal company. When I worked for Brady I could see it from the office window. American rifleman had a decent article about it a few years ago. Excerpt below.

The second largest armed insurrection in American history, only surpassed by the American Civil War, culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain, near the town of Logan, W. Va., during the late summer of 1921. Thousands of coal miners, pushed beyond the limits of frustration with the coal mine owners and operators, took up arms and marched from the state capital, Charleston, toward the southernmost county in the state, in a spontaneous attempt to free fellow miners who had been capriciously imprisoned by local authorities for attempting to unionize the coal fields. Rumors of the recently formed state police machine-gunning women and children in the camps of striking miners fueled the fires of their rage, and revenge for the assassination of their hero, Sid Hatfield, steadied their course. When the marching miners met the hurriedly assembled forces of Sheriff Don Chafin at Blair Mountain, they were carrying a wide array of firearms, while the Logan County Defenders, manning the trenches on the top of the mountain, had an equally disparate assortment of guns.-AR

The area was rough back in the day to put it mildly. This is the area of the Hatfield & McCoys. The county I live in , Pike County, Kentucky is on the other side of the river from Mingo, Wv and Logan WV borders Mingo. It was about as violent as anything int he old west.

Just across the river from Matewan is Buskirk, Ky. Where Sid is buried and has it’s own history.

Tree isn’t there anymore so no pictures.

In 1987 a film was made about the story. It’s not bad. A little too much communist messaging in it for my tastes but worth a watch. Odlly enough they didn’t film Matewan in Matewan.

Some big name actors acted in it. David Strathairn played Sid, James Earl Jones was in it as well Chris Cooper and a few other “Hey its that one guy” character actors familiar to anyone who is a fan of 1980s cinema.

If you liked this let me know and I will go to the local museum in Pikeville, Ky and we can talk about some other local color.

I will leave you with this beautiful paint job on a house in Matewan that I crack up over every time I drive past it.


  1. Now I’ve got “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” in my head.

    I’m always down for history. Yours is not a part of the country that I’ve spent any time in at all.

  2. A reminder that our weekend off was paid for in blood.

    Those UMW men remind me of the Longshore Union members I met in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, not men to trifle with.

  3. Yes, more please. Greatly appreciated.

    Another bit of unpleasantness I’ve been meaning to read up on was the Ludlow Massacre during the “coal wars” in Colorado.

    • Ah, the Ludlow Massacre.

      I got to study the Ludlow Massacre in detail when I was in Trinidad for gunsmithing school. Ludlow is only about 12 miles or so north of Trinidad proper, right along I-25.

      When I read Shawn’s posting above, the name “Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency” jumped out at me. These thugs were involved in Ludlow as well.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here