Tug Fork River
Deep in the dusty coalfields of the Appalachian Mountains is a forgotten river that is older than time itself. Its waters are polluted, its history is bloody and the men and women who live along its banks are some of the strongest and most perseverant people in all of America. The tributary has been stained with the blood of lawmen, feuding neighbors, and exploited coal miners.
The Tug Valley, one of the most remote areas of West Virginia, was among the last places in the state to be settled. Permanent settlement began about 1800, and the region was sparsely populated until the development of the coal industry nearly a century later.
The Hatfields, whose later feud with the McCoys is the most notorious event in Tug Valley history, were among the first settlers.
The river is believed to have been named in 1756, during Major Andrew Lewis' disastrous "Sandy Creek" expedition against the Shawnee Indians in southern Ohio. Near the headwaters, the group attempted to descend the Tug River to Ohio by using canoes for the trip, but they encountered tremendous rapids and lost their supplies. The men were forced to boil and eat their boot strings or "tugs" made of buffalo hide.
I did not encounter Indians, but rather many snakes and several mama and baby bear prints during my 3-day paddle from Panther to Matewan. And the water appeared clean and full of life, despite the abundant trash noted along its banks.
I was joined by my dear friend, Sherry, once a coal miner herself, who was interested in visiting Matewan and the area. What better way than by canoe!!
The bridge ( the only landmark in Panther! ) provided very little access to the river. We managed to lower our 16 foot We-no-nah canoe down a grassy embankment to a muddy beach and carry our gear down a rocky, man-made embankment. A few stumbles, but no injuries. We were paddling by 1130 only to met by class 1-2 rapids around every bend- the water was swift and many rocks were not visible just below the water's surface- this added to the challenge with having to get out of the boat often to scout and read the river before paddling on.
We talked and enjoyed periods of silence as we were guided by beautiful blue heron. Met a few elderly fishermen who were not eager to talk and our conversations were often interrupted by the continuous train traffic adjacent to the East bank. The weekend weather was delightful and several locals were out on the tracks on their 4-wheelers. The riverbanks were overgrown with Japanese knotweed and I unfortunately had to machete' our way from the river to a nice clearing in the woods. Sherry started a fire as I hung our hammocks. We laughed and bathed in the River, enjoyed a light dinner and were in "bed" early. Not much sleep due to the train traffic, but their sound took me back to my childhood summers at my family's Camp, where the trains traveled frequently across "our river", the Tygart Valley.
Late start on day 2. I woke early, made coffee & attempted to fish off the rocky beach- one good hit which took my lure upon pulling a big one in. I raced back to my tackle bag only to slip and fall in the creek! Ouch! Soaking wet, but it felt good. We were approximately an hour from being half way to Matewan. We have no cell service- no way out of this remote canyon. Perfect!
On the water by 0930- Sherry is a late riser and didn't get a good night's sleep- cold. The only disadvantage to hammock camping- no convection heat. I will lend her my gortex bag tonight.
Another beautiful day. We ran into Keith Gibson, owner of Hatfield & McCoy's Airboat Rides. I spoke with Keith prior to this trip in hopes of meeting him. He provided great information about a new blind sweeper down the river created by a fallen tree- could have been very dangerous had we not known- directly around a blind blend. He cut his engine and we all chatted. Good people.
Sherry and I agreed to stop early, but ended up paddling until after 6- simply no good takeouts- the banks were overgrown and steep. We finally found a popular tree swing spot with many dirt bike tracks. Luckily it was deserted, for now anyway, and we decided to make Camp with the hopes that we would not be disturbed. We were close to Matewan with homes and "civilization" making it difficult to find a private campsite. Not much JKW, but lots of poison ivy which I foolishly removed from the trees to hang our hammocks. I suffered for the next week. Luckily Sherry was untouched.
She was asleep early. I stayed awake enjoying the fireflies and full moon from my hammock. Total Peace.
Without cell service we were unable to tell Ed that we were paddling to the Matewan bridge and not taking out a McCarr Park with an easily accessible boat ramp. This choice proved to take much more effort. We had to pull the canoe onto an elevated dock and carry our gear up a 400 yard steep gravel path through the Flood wall to the Visitors Center- a restored box car. Still no cell service. A city worker offered me a ride across the bridge to a small shopping plaza where I was able to use another phone to leave Ed a message. Back to picnic area to help Sherry with a painful cut on her foot. The canoe would have to wait down on the dock for Ed to help carry. He arrived within the hour. We loaded up the canoe, browsed the museum, and enjoyed a large soft dip ice cream cone.
One of the largest labor uprisings in the nation's history occurred here, where 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 Fork, the miners returned to work and waited for what would become swift retribution. Quick to act, the Stone Mountain Coal Corporation fought back with mass firings, harassment, and evictions. 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, 13 Baldwin-Felts detectives stopped off the No. 29 morning train, carrying briefcases containing machine guns. The detectives, one-by-one, continued the 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 their houses.
The detectives were surrounded by armed miners, as unarmed women and children swam across the Tug Fork River to safety in Kentucky. The residents of Matewan, led by Sid Hatfield, the town's police chief, battled in the streets with the detectives, referred to as "thugs" by the miners.
In total, both Felts brothers, along with 5 other detectives, 2 miners, and the town's mayor had been killed.
The five o'clock trained pulled into the station and horrified passengers are said to have stared in silence at the ghastly sight on full display on the streets of Matewan. Dead bodies were strewn through the town and pools of blood washed down the alleyways into the Tug Fork.
I will return to the Tug Fork and spearhead a trash pickup campaign, hopefully with the help of Keith Gibson. Next trip will be a one-nighter, arriving late on the second day with hopes of staying at the Matewan B&B with dinner at the local Bar-b-Que restaurant.
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