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Greed and Death In the Mountains (Part I)

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AUTHOR'S NOTE :  This is the first of several articles I am writing about coal mining in and around Logan County, West Virginia.  These articles, when finished, will be woven into one longer article about the people and history of southern West Virginia.  I don't know what the finished article will look like or even where it may find distribution, so I appreciate you the reader, taking time out of your busy schedule to learn about this important -- and little known -- spot on the map of American history.  'Friends of Blair Mountain' need your help.  The work ahead of them is great and the resources available to them are few.  To see how you can help, please contact me.

Matewan, population 459, sits at the convergence of two chocolate colored rivers. The Tug Fork River and Mate Creek merge. The rivers started showing the effects of coal mining not long after coal was first discovered nearby by in 1742. Since then, the mines have been a source of income for some, pain and suffering for many and great wealth for a few. Matewan is a product of the coal mines. Matewan is famous for two things; the Hatfield-McCoy Feud and The Matewan Massacre. Sometimes it seems like death and destruction are the only things that get attention in this part of southern West Virginia.

While the Hatfield-McCoy Feud is well known throughout the world, the Matewan Massacre would hardly be known outside of the valley where it happened in the spring of 1920 if it weren't for the 1987 movie "Matewan".

Miners, tired of being pushed around and exploited by the coal mine owners started gathering petitions to form a union. Inspired by union strikes in other parts of the country that resulted in a 27% pay increase, 3000 miners signed their union cards in a local church. The miners knew that by signing a union card they were putting their jobs and homes in jeopardy. They signed anyway. The mine owners fired people as they joined the union and threw families of union miners out of their company owned homes and into the street.

Sid Hatfield, Police Chief of Matewan, was sympathetic to the miners. A former miner himself, he knew the plight of the miners. He knew firsthand the low pay the miners received for dismal working conditions. He wasn't about to stand idly by and watch people he loved being exploited.

When he refused to follow the wishes of the mine owners and evict miners, the owners brought in the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to serve as a sort of private army and carry out the evictions. Arriving by train the morning of March 19, 1920, the thugs of the Baldwin-Felts agency evicted the families of six miners to set an example. Sid Hatfield intervened and a gunfight resulted. When the firing was over, approximately 1000 rounds had been fired, seven detectives, two miners and Matawan's Mayor were dead and four bystanders were wounded.

Sid Hatfield's subsequent assassination -- shot down with him was his friend Ed Chambers -- at the McDowell County Courthouse was the flashpoint that led to miners taking up arms and marching to Blair Mountain, the largest insurrection in America since the Civil War.

While the number of people visiting has dropped considerably, the two fivers still flow with the same chocolate color. Poisoned by 270 different chemicals that are using in the mining process, the water is unfit to drink, cook or bathe in. The numbers of unexplained cancers are out of proportion for the region. In one hollow where ten families live, five of the families have a member who has been diagnosed as having a brain tumor. Five out of ten. 

The national average is 1 out of 10,000.

  Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and OpEdNews as well as a weekly guest on national radio.  Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great.  Nelson currently is in Logan County West Virginia, site of The March on Blair Mountain.  

Nelson's book, OccupyDC: As I See It has been called, "The most thorough photographic documentation of the Occupy Movement in Washington DC".

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I am an American freelance writer and ghostwriter now living the expat life in Argentina. Never far from my coffee and Marlboros, I am always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Join the million-or-so who follow my life and (more...)

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