Tour Company Offers Glimpse Into WV Mine Wars

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Coal was once the bedrock of the Appalachian economy — and the source of major labor unrest.

One West Virginia-based tourism company wants to shed light on this part of the region's history with their coal country tours.
Doug Estepp, owner of Coal Country Tours, says the West Virginia mine wars took place from the turn of the century to around 1922, but the history is largely unknown.
"Among some of the more prominent events of those wars was the bloody 1912-1913 Paint Creek strike," said Estepp. "You have the Battle of Matewan, known as the Matewan massacre, which was actually the deadliest gun fight in US history.  You kind of always think of the Old West when you think of these things, but the fight actually took place in Southern West Virginia in 1920, 10 men were killed in just a few minutes."
Estepp says those are just some of the stories tour participants hear in stops along the way. He started Coal Company Tours after writing tour itineraries for interested people who attended his lectures on the state's coal history.  That interest helped him realize there was a market for tours about West Virginia's mine wars.  
He says the tour isn't just about the history of the mine wars, but also about participants experiencing the coal mining culture.
"I think they find the train interesting, it's rugged country down there.  They really like the history and I think they like the folks down there, the people," said Estepp. "We don't just go and look, we freely mix with locals.  In Matewan, we have dinner with coal miners and their families, at Blair, we talk to the local community and at Welch and Bramwell, too.  I think that's very appealing to them."
The tours began in May of 2011 and typically run three to four days with as many as 40 people participating. Estepp says Coal Country Tours will begin a new historical tour this summer, as they trace the legend of the Hatfield-McCoy family rivalry.