- Posted August 25, 2014 by
Matewan, West Virginia
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Your favorite river
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The Tug River - America's Bloodiest River
The river is the Tug Fork and for nearly as long as white men have been drinking from its murky waters, the tributary has been stained with the blood of lawmen, feuding neighbors and exploited workers.
Cutting through the heart of the impenetrable mountains of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, the ancient waterway has provided inhabitants of this difficult land a passageway to the Ohio River and America’s heartland for eons.
The river received its name in 1756, after a starving band of Virginia soldiers were forced to tug on rotting buffalo skins to find meat.
Sadly, the river would continue to play host to dozens of deadly conflicts throughout the centuries ahead.
During the American Civil War, the river served as the national borders between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America – prompting several skirmishes between competing local guerrilla forces; each of which specialized in terrorizing the unguarded farms and towns of Pike County, Kentucky, and what was then Logan County, West Virginia (now Mingo County).
The river’s most notable claim to fame, however, came in the days following the War Between the States.
Immediately following the war’s conclusion, crossing the river meant all but certain death for members of the Hatfield and McCoy clans – the Hatfield’s lived along the notorious river’s northern bank, in West Virginia, while the McCoy’s resided just south of the 159-mile long stream, in Kentucky.
A generation later, the Tug River would again be discolored with blood, as the initial shots would ring out in what would quickly become one of the largest labor uprisings in the nation’s history.
In May 1920, approximately 3,000 West Virginia miners defied company orders by enlisting in the unions.
Signing their union cards at the Matewan Community Church, on the banks of the Tug River, the miners returned to work and waited what would become swift retribution.
Quick to act, the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation fought back with mass firings, harassment, and evictions.
In an effort to retain Mingo County’s non-union status, the company called in the notorious Baldwin-Felts detectives to assist in intimidating the miners and carrying out evictions upon the homes of workers who had been blacklisted for joining the union.
On the rainy morning of May 19, 1920, thirteen Baldwin-Felts detectives stopped off the No. 29 morning train, carrying briefcases containing submachine guns.
The detectives loaded into three awaiting vehicles and left the town limits; beginning their work evicting residents of the coal camps, along the banks of the Tug River. As a steady drizzle continued through the day, the detectives, one-by-one, continued their evictions of coal camp houses, forcing women and children out of their homes at gunpoint – reportedly dumping their belongings into the muddy roads in front of the houses.
Throughout the afternoon, word spread through the community of the detective’s actions, prompting a blaze of anger, which quickly spread through the Tug River Valley.
Shortly thereafter, the detectives arrived back in Matewan, ready to catch the 5 p.m. train.
As the men made their way to the train station, they were headed off by Sid Hatfield, the town’s police chief.
The chief would later testify: “Someone went and told the mayor that the detectives had me arrested, and the mayor came out to see what the charges were… the mayor asked him for the warrant, and he gave the warrant to the mayor and the mayor read the warrant and said it was bogus, it was not legal, and then he shot the mayor. Then the shooting started in general… Fifty or seventy-five shots were fired.”
Unbeknownst to the detectives, they had been surrounded by armed miners, however, who were watching from the windows, doorways and roofs of the businesses which sat on the banks of the Tug River.
As unarmed women and children swam across the Tug Fork River to safety in Kentucky, the residents of Matewan and the detectives, referred to as “thugs” by the miners, battled in the streets of the community.
According to reports, one of the detectives was killed by a child, who was hiding inside a nearby doctor’s office when the shooting began; retreating into the building, while shooting into the street, the gunman was hit in the back of the head with a jug of chloroform, by a hiding child – killing the detective almost immediately.
Another account reveals the death of Albert Felts, brother of the famed Thomas Felts.
Hawthorne Burgaff, son of deputy Fred Burgraff recounted, “Albert Felts ran down to the post office and found shelter there. But, Sid went after him, because he knew that he needed to get rid of that fellow. So, as he approached the post office, he hollered in and told Albert, ‘come out and shoot it out like a man,’ and my father said Albert said, ‘If you want me, come and get me.’ Well, they started pouring their bullets into the post office and Albert came out shooting and Sid killed him.”
At least two of the Baldwin-Felts detectives managed to escape to safety across the river.
Another detective ran underneath the porch of a nearby resident, Maude McCoy.
When the miners saw the detective hiding under the porch, they immediately pulled him out and prepared to execute him.
According to the late Joseph P. Garland, McCoy came out on her porch with an iron skillet in hand. Warning the miners to step away, she gave refuge to the escapee, feeling obliged to obey her interpretation of Old Testament scripture regarding refugees.
McCoy later slipped the escaping Virginian back onto a train headed for Bluefield.
When silence finally settled upon the streets of Matewan, the town’s mayor lied dying in the street.
Hatfield, who had faced off with the gunmen, had not been hit by any bullets, though his hat had been shot completely off his head and one of his two guns had been blown out of his hand.
In total, both Felts brothers had been killed, along with five other detectives, two miners and the town’s mayor.
Hatfield is said to have boasted that he killed all seven of the detectives.
Moments later, the five o’clock train pulled into the station and horrified passengers are said to have stared in silence at the ghastly sight that was on full display on the streets of Matewan. Dead bodies were strewn through the town and pools of blood were washing down the alleyways and into the Tug River.