Growing up in West Virginia, I gained a rudimentary understanding of labor unions at a very young age. The United Mine Workers were on the news for one reason or another every week, it seemed, and the names of UMW presidents (of that time) Tony Boyle, Arnold Miller and Rich Trumka were as well known as the names of the state’s governors. I was 15 when the Buffalo Creek mine disaster occurred. A couple of years later I began working in a local hospital as a CNA, and for the first time met men suffering from black lung disease. Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.
We didn’t learn much about the history of the mines in school. The West Virginia history that we were taught was mostly about the white settlers fighting off the Indians, how Abraham Lincoln made us a state, and how some guy named Morgan Morgan was the first white settler in the state. (Turns out that wasn’t right.)
As a result, my knowledge about the mining industry wasn’t what it should have been. I knew something big had happened at Matewan once – there was a movie made about it, after all – but I didn’t know exactly what. I’d never heard of Blair Mountain. I didn’t know that the owners of the coal mines didn’t even live in the state and therefore had no investment in what mining did to the landscape and people.
I’ve been away from West Virginia for 30 years and hadn’t thought about mining much at all until very recently, when I started doing research for Pictured to Death. (Jamie Brodie Mystery #12, coming next year). I don’t want to say much about it yet, except that it involves coal mining history. I’ve done a good bit of reading in preparation, and have learned a lot about the history of my own state that I never knew.
Matewan is famous because, in 1920, a former miner and city official named Sid Hatfield (yes, of the Hatfield-McCoy Hatfields) was shot to death, while unarmed and walking with his wife, on the courthouse steps. That murder set off a chain of events which culminated in the Battle of Blair Mountain – which wasn’t much of a battle, as it turns out, but scared the coal operators and law enforcement very badly. A U.S. Army general finally talked the miners into laying down their arms. The miners hated the coal operators, but they were patriotic Americans – many of them WWI vets – and wouldn’t fight against the Army. The miners counted it as a victory, though, since it had taken the Army to stop them.
It’s a fascinating history. If you’re interested at all, the best book I’ve read about it is Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21, by Lon Savage.
Happy Labor Day.