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Remembering the Matewan massacre

by PAUL D'AMATO | August 17, 2001 | Page 11

MANY READERS of Socialist Worker will have seen the excellent John Sayles film Matewan, about a group of miners in West Virginia who go on strike against the coal bosses in the early 1920s.

In the film's climactic scene, striking miners--led by the town sheriff, Sid Hatfield, who supports them--square off against a gang of Baldwin-Felts guards hired by the company, leading to a deadly gun battle.

What you might not know is that the film is based on a true story--and the real setting still exists.

Matewan is a small town near the Tug River that divides Kentucky and West Virginia. The rugged green mountains of the region are beautiful--where the tops haven't been blasted off by strip mining.

I won't tell you that the place hasn't changed. A big concrete floodwall cuts across the town, and there's now a road where the railroad tracks from the film's climactic scene used to be.

But quite a few old storefronts along the main street have been preserved. One of them has been converted into a one-room museum, with historical photographs and other items related to the region's history.

The old brick bank building at one end of the street still has bullet holes in it from the "Matewan massacre." Press a button on the wall of the bank, and a recorded message--surprisingly sympathetic to the miners--retells the story of the Matewan massacre and the efforts of miners to unionize in West Virginia.

As you listen, you can look out on the scene where the gunfight took place--which still looks close enough to what it must have then to let your imagination go a little bit.

The Tug River region is also the locale of the old and bloody Hatfield and McCoy feud. When my partner and I visited Matewan, we ran across a couple who was also listening to the taped recording describing the union's battles. It turned out that one was actually a Hatfield--related to old Sheriff Sid Hatfield.

Matewan, we were told by the owners of the local gift shop, regularly gets visitors, some even from overseas, because of the film. But as of a few years ago, the town still didn't have a place to stay.

If you spend the day there, you'll have to get a room in the nearby coal town of Williamson--whose main attraction is a small city hall building made entirely of coal bricks.

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